Thursday, September 5, 2013

Album Review: Arctic Monkeys - AM

Album Rating: B-
Arctic Monkeys' fifth studio album AM can be best described in reference to the long running documentary series 7 Up, which follows the lives of a select group of people in seven year intervals. Like the documentary, we can stand in the present and look back on a steady, linear career as the band’s style has evolved, but who could have stood seven years ago at the release of Whatever People Say I Am… and have predicted the band becoming so, well, dejected? Its debut was anything but: with a cigarette sneer and an endless supply of observational gold, it was a healthy “fuck you” to polite society. Now the band sounds just about ready to start playing fake tales at weddings.

Someone will get that.

So bring in the psychedelic twang, falsetto backing vocals and Alex’s new grown-up haircut, and listen to Arctic Monkeys schmaltz through 12 songs your dad will like. AM represents a fairly straightforward hybrid of past material where the band’s early punch and circumstance are blown hazily through Humbug’s stoner rock roach. This leads to a fairly eclectic but nevertheless fitting mix of riff-lead singles and smoky, distant ballads, forming a setlist more likely to be played after the clubs close instead of before a night on the town.

To their credit, the approach works when the members set their minds to it. Opening tracks “Do I Wanna Know?” and “R U Mine?” (you tell me, Alex) offer a one-two punch of catchy hooks and the kind of cheesy machismo created by songs completely dominated by simple riffs. “R U Mine?” might even prompt flashbacks of the band’s indie-punk origins as Alex momentarily drops the late-night predatory sneer coating his vocals for the rest of “the really cool, sexy after-midnight record.” Juxtaposed together, it’s interesting to see how wildly different the effects of both vocal styles are: from exciting seven years ago to more distant and glazed-over today. Our Arctic Monkeys are getting older a bit faster than time should allow them to.

This all culminates in “No. 1 Party Anthem:” a song as good as it is deemed tongue-in-cheek, simply because it’s hard to tell. On one hand, the slow paced ballad obviously smirks at its own title, on the other we can argue all day about how seriously old or young Alex is taking the chase he describes. Lyrically he is very serious, but he sounds reflective to the point of exhaustion. A similar thing can be said about the album’s closer “I Wanna Be Yours,” as lyrics like “I wanna be your Ford Cortina, I will never rust” are matched with stone cold serious delivery. From a man known for his lyrical prowess it can only be a joke, but then again the band now spells song titles like they were received via texts from a fiftysomething parent, so the question remains. 

The ambiguity continues into AM’s lyrics as a whole. Styles have shifted from witty soundbites to more atmospheric stories, but while still good enough, there’s little in the way of any burn-into-memory lines like the kind strung together in Whatever People Say I Am… or the ever memorable “what came first, the chicken or the dickhead?”. As one of the original attractions to the band, it seems too good to be ignored, though it’s understandable the band feels a bit past those kind of lines now that it's all grown-up.

Sadly, AM suffers pretty heavily from weak spots as the band sinks so far into their late-night sexy role it forgets to be interesting. The second half of the album can almost be considered a write off as it swings from dull to bland, registering like a barely ticking clock. Seven years on from their tearaway days, it seems there isn’t too much for the band to talk about. Arctic Monkeys sings about girls now; god help us.

Still, the album is far from a complete flop. The northern lads may have tamed over the past few years but they’ve at least still got a little bit of “the stuff.” Falsetto vocals are a novel -if a little overused- introduction, and Arctic Monkeys has grown a nice ear for melodies, which they use to colour up otherwise monochrome ballads. AM sounds pretty unique, too, but at the same time it just doesn’t feel very special. The band's self-imposed exile from pop music’s form of the Overton window doesn’t seem to have paid off at all. 

AM is currently streaming on iTunes and is released September 9.

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