If you culled together the critical reviews for Arctic Monkeys’ two previous albums—Humbug (2009) and Suck It and See (2011)—the common observation would be that the band was “maturing.” I’ve always thought that was a backhanded compliment because for a plucky British band like this, that seems to mean they were losing the raw (juvenile) thrill that made them such a fun listen.
(Straight to the point: Save for a few choice tracks, they grew up and became a bit of a bore, like when Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly get real jobs in Step Brothers. I was witness to their newfound dullness when I watched them play the entirety of Humbug at their Lollapalooza set in 2009. They could have been called Antidepressant Monkeys.)
Thankfully, they’ve recaptured that excitement while continuing to evolve as a rock band, which is a significant feat given the level of expectation heaped upon them even after their first album. To fully appreciate the importance of this, consider how much less exciting a band like Franz Ferdinand became following their rock maturation.
Lyrically, they’re not too different. The lines are still silly and endlessly inventive (“I wanna be your vacuum cleaner / Breathing in your dust”), and the songs are still primarily about sex and relationships—failures and false starts. Lead singer Alex Turner hasn’t abandoned his crooning sensibilities either, which is best demonstrated on the ironically titled “No. 1 Party Anthem.” Turner keeps experimenting with his vocal range to great success, same with the band’s instrumentals, showing just how far they’ve come since “From the Ritz to the Rubble.”
Listen closely and you can hear some heavy influence from bands old and new on this release: The album’s opener, “Do I Wanna Know?” sounds eerily like The Black Keys’ breakout album Brothers; “Mad Sounds” could have come from Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky; “Arabella” is the best Led Zeppelin impersonation I’ve ever heard; and you can hear the disco-era inspiration all over the album, as well as early-‘90s R&B on a track like “I Wanna Be Yours.”
(Seriously, just close your eyes and imagine Brian McKnight or Babyface crushing this chorus.)
After a dozen or so listens, I think it’s a combination of those latter two genre influences—the disco and R&B—that have made AM so entertaining. They’ve helped soften this gruff band without sacrificing their youthfulness or the intense focus on sexuality. It’s not a coincidence that a staple of those two genres is pure eroticism. Check out how well a few suggestive lyrics and some spectacular (Bee Gees-esque) falsetto chorus work elevate this track, “Knee socks,” my favorite on the album:
When the zeros line up on the 24-hour clock
When you know who’s calling even though the number is blocked
When you walked around your house wearing my sky blue Lacoste
And your knee socks
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure these guys had the desire to make this kind of album anymore. I was beginning to accept the fact that a thoughtful and downtempo Arctic Monkeys sound was what I was going to get, especially after Turner’s lovely yet sleepy-eyed solo work on the Submarine soundtrack. Part of my love for this album comes from their recent missteps, but I’m positive that if I had heard this at the same time as Favourite Worst Nightmare, this would have gotten more repeat listens1.
With so many tragically disappointing releases this year2, it would take a Herculean effort from Arcade Fire to knock this from the top of my favorite albums of 2013. But let me be clear: That’s not to diminish how fucking great I think this album is. It’s not the year’s best by default; it’s the best album from one of my all-time favorite bands.
Arctic Monkeys’ AM releases Monday, September 9th.
1I am a sucker for disco beats. Give me MJ’s Off the Wall over Thriller any day.
2Kanye West’s Yeezus, Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, Deerhunter’s Monomania, The Strokes’ Comedown Machine, and The National’s Trouble Will Find Me, to name a few.