Despite surfacing more prematurely than Domino records would have hoped, with leaks dribbling through cracks in the internet, ‘AM’ has finally collided with the world and it has already made a considerable impact. NME in particular have drowned it in undiluted glory and stated that it might be ‘the greatest record of the last decade’, but is that too big a shout?
The fifth album has been two years coming for the Sheffield chaps and to bring their ideas to life this time, they haven't drastically altered their methods. Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford was on hand again (and has been on hand since their second effort ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’) for production duties while Josh Homme, who famously assisted the band in carving their heavier and more innovative direction on ‘Humbug’, also returned to the studio with them. The direction which AM was going to take this time was forged back in 2012, with the record’s roots lying in the explosive ‘R U Mine?’. This track aimed to please the riff hungry ears of Black Keys fans during their North American tour supporting them. However, from the Black Sabbath inspired classic rock blossomed fresher influences that prevented them from merely echoing the heavier guitar led tracks like ‘Brick By Brick’ and ‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’, that featured on their previous album Suck it and See. On AM we see hip hop and R&B influences warping their sound like never before, with the ninth track ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’ showcasing this at its fullest. This is a seemingly natural progression when you delve in to their history. Drummer Matt Helders has always riffed off of a hip hop vibe with evidence of this coming out in various compilations and mixes. His Late Night Tales compilation and his 2009 Annie Mac minimix featured artists ranging from Dr. Dre, DJ Format, Roots Manuva and Mos Def and the rhythmic styles that ooze out of these artists’ music certainly shine through on AM.
Similarly in 2006, frontman Alex Turner explained in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald that he liked "Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, but I have no idea what it's like in Compton or Long Beach". He goes on in that particular interview to explain that "you don't always have to be in the situation that you listen to in the song to like it or appreciate it" and to this day this ethos is radiated in their music. Take ‘Arabella’ for example, although lyrically it narrates a specific girl in Alex Turner’s life who takes a dip in his daydreams, he has highlighted that ‘it doesn’t really matter who, does it?’ In addition to Turner’s sublime lyricism that fills this track (and of course many others tracks on the album), Arabella stands out on AM as the song which most succinctly captures their new direction. Firstly, it opens with a west-coast hip hop inspired bass groove that swaggers beneath Turner’s smooth vocal line. Then before we know it, Jamie Cook interjects with a ‘War Pigs’ inspired riff that transforms the track in to an irresistible headbanger. 3 minutes and 3 seconds in, this influence bubbles to the brink with Cook launching in to the most rock ‘n’ roll guitar shred yet that wouldn’t sound anomalous on a Led Zeppelin record.
However, despite the strong musical influences that act upon the album Arctic Monkeys avoid merely copying and pasting their inspirations. ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’ features a euphoric piano chord progression that sounds naturally familiar to the ear but the way Alex Turner’s vocals wrap around the music holds no restraint. This vocal template is almost a hark back to the first album when his words get on top of him and go ‘all a bit Frank Spencer’ yet despite his words linking up later than expected, the way in which he sings the melody still sounds so natural with the rest of the composition. Another vocal highlight of the album comes from the contributions of the infamous ‘space choirboys’ a pseudonym coined by Alex Turner to label Nick O’Malley and Matt Helder’s falsetto harmonies. Nymphomaniac anthem ‘One For The Road’ which documents Alex Turner’s urge for a little bit of a ‘shake, rattle and roll’ is littered with ‘oohs’ and falsetto cries that echo the title but the finest moment from the ‘space choirboys’ comes later on the album. Penultimate track ‘Knee Socks’ contains an irresistible R&B tinged vocal hook from the bassist and drummer that references Scorsese classic ‘Mean Streets’. Once topped off by Josh Homme crooning soulfully underneath, claims that this is a stand out record of the last ten years certainly seem less far fetched.
The album concludes with the brooding number ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ in which Alex Turner’s writing takes the back bench as he opts to sing the words of John Cooper Clarke’s poem which shares the name of the track. This is their slowest album finale to date and it also features another Arctic Monkeys first as the band soundtrack the poetry with a vintage Selmer drum machine. It’s a bold move that pays off as the beat beautifully cushions the swirl of reverb laden guitars while Alex Turner yearns to be her ‘coffee pot’ amongst a variety of other metaphors.
It would be too bold to crown this record as the greatest offering in music over the last decade but it certainly isn’t too strong of a claim to suggest that the Arctic Monkeys have produced a career defining album. The band have yet to produce an underwhelming record, managing to nurture steady growth between albums without compromising commercial appeal. This once scrappy ‘hype band’ now not only justify the hype, but actively defy it, warping expectations and demanding our full attention.
Words: George Hemmati