It’s hard to fathom, but it’s been seven years since Arctic Monkeys thundered onto the scene with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, one of the fastest-selling debut albums in UK chart history. In their earlier days, Arctic Monkeys were anything but “fluorescent adolescents.” The post-punk pioneers once sported stringy mop haircuts concealed by hoodies. But with the flick of his sharp-witted tongue and blunt words, frontman Alex Turner accumulated three years’ worth of hype prior to the release of their first LP, and the Monkeys’ snarky garage-rock sound catapulted them into the spotlight.
Turner has traded Sheffield for Los Angeles since then; that hoodie for a leather jacket; that unmanageable hair for a slick, stylized Elvis curl and his shrug for swagger. The result doesn’t inflate the band’s latest effort with bravado or amateur glam rock (though the album’s heavy hip-hop influences might have something to do with the latter). Rather, AM is the howl of someone mysterious — someone perhaps lurking uncomfortably in the back corner of the bar — and just as lonely.
Arctic Monkeys were once among the last heralds of Brit-rock (circa 2006), but Turner name-dropped distinct influences for the band’s fifth LP: guitar licks a la Black Sabbath, the hip-hop beats of Dr. Dre and Outkast and R&B from Aaliyah. Arctic Monkeys collaborated with Queens of the Stone Age on their fourth effort, Suck It and See, and adopted psychedelic vibes from its leader, Josh Homme. Homme returns for a couple of guest spots on AM, and his influence is ever-present. The youthful Brits of yesteryear are now California-transplants, and their new sound is dirty, dingy rock with a simper — guitar-loaded with bass beats that still pack a pop punch.
AM is most obviously an abbreviation of the band’s name, but it doubles as an ode to a precarious late-night lifestyle that, without warning, slowly oozes into morning (or, as Turner croons on the penultimate track “Knee Socks,” “when the zeros line up on the 24-hour clock,”). His lyrics sting with desperation and vulnerability, and evoke the all too familiar feelings of stumbling, clumsy, intoxicated longing and the need for romantic validation.
The one-two combo at the top of the album’s queue (“Do I Wanna Know?” and “R U Mine?”) were both pre-released singles that together combine for a deadly and alluring introduction, but also prelude “AM” with a succinct synopsis.
Against the slink of a grungy guitar, Turner pines almost pathetically for his potential lover, pleading, “We could be together / If you wanted to.” But even his bleakest efforts to solicit her response — “Ever thought of calling when you’ve had a few? / ‘Cause I always do” — are more melancholy than pitiful, and unnervingly familiar. The line also introduces the underlying vein of drugs and alcohol that both remedy and ruin Turner’s unrequited search for companionship throughout the album. The band even released a music video to accompany the track “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” that features an inebriated Turner wandering the streets and hallucinating graphic sexual encounters with his fellow wanderers.
The album’s standout hit “R U Mine?” might be the best since 2006’s “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor,” though the two tracks sound like distant cousins, if at all related. Turner awakens from the crawling drawl he favors on the darker parts of the album, and the drums kick up and gel against an infectious guitar riff.
This track’s companion is the electric “Arabella,” a cosmic love song that pays tribute to classic rock, complete with the kind of thumping guitar you’d strum along to on Guitar Hero after a signature wail: “Arabella!”
AM is often punctuated by falsettos that would seem to counter the band’s stab at trip-hop in theory, but rather supplement its soaring rock sounds with layered vocals. And perhaps as a caricature of Turner’s ‘50s look, there are tracks ridden with “shoo-wop”s and “ooh la la”s. These songs become easy sing-alongs and toe-tappers, but sacrifice both content and grit for poppiness.
It turns out Turner’s slick smugness is a façade. A quarter of AM is raw and honest balladry. Traditional Arctic Monkeys ballads paint tableaus of bars and clubs and the social etiquette of dim, greasy Britain. They allude to young boys running from “coppers” out of sheer boredom and entertainment, and drunken lads squabbling over who was first in line. The twinkling ballads on AM, however, are of a different breed.
“No. 1 Party Anthem,” a true contender for the album’s best track, paints a grimy club scene where sweat sticks to the walls (possibly in Los Angeles, because Turner notes, “Sunglasses indoors / par for the course”). His youthful nervousness about picking up girls on previous albums returns, but this time with sadness, not anxiety. In his “drunken monologues,” Turner sulkily slurs: “It’s not like I’m falling in love / I just want you to do me no good / And you look like you could.”
Turner trudges on with the ultimate track, “I Wanna Be Yours,” a somber, twinkling tune that pits him at his most sincere and desperate, begging to be loved at any cost. “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner / Breathing in your dust,” Turner lulls and ends the verse by surrendering everything: “You call the shots, babe / I just wanna be yours.” The swagger, the drunken glamour of the leather jacket-adorned rock star is an illusion, and Turner concludes the album like he’s slogging through the mud in his heeled boots.
AM is a different sound for the Californian Arctic Monkeys, one dripping with unease and determined temerity. It’s not quite the best we’ve ever seen from the group — but it’s close.