Questions, experimentation contribute to Arctic Monkeys’ ‘AM’

With songs such as “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and “No. 1 Party Anthem,” the Arctic Monkeys showcase an evolution in sound and lyrics.  (Photo provided by arcticmonkeys.com)
With songs such as “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and “No. 1 Party Anthem,” the Arctic Monkeys showcase an evolution in sound and lyrics. (Photo provided by arcticmonkeys.com)

Are the Arctic Monkeys the same band that took the world by storm eight years ago? It seems only natural to lead this review with a question, as the first three singles of the album are also all titled in question form. This is indicative of what the four-piece band from Sheffield is doing on their fifth studio album, “AM:” questioning their sound.

The answer to the question is obvious. Of course the Arctic Monkeys are a different band from their “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” days. Even the suave, up-tempo lead single of “AM,” “R U Mine?”, seems like a slow jog compared to the band’s frantic debut 2005 single “I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor.”

It is only natural for a band as talented as the Arctic Monkeys to progress, and “AM” feels like the culmination of the band’s growth from teenage sensations to an experimental indie rock band. “AM” manages to mix the fearless swagger of their first album with the more mature sound they displayed on their previous album, “Suck It and See.” It all comes together in a package that moves the band forward sonically, though perhaps leaves a little bit of the fun from the first two albums behind.

Alex Turner, the band’s singer-guitarist, described the recording process as sounding “less like four lads playing in a room this time,” citing influences ranging from Dr. Dre and Aaliyah to Black Sabbath and John Lennon. Such proclamations would seem impossible to live up to from a range standpoint, but the band manages to pull off the mix. “No. 1 Party Anthem,” the standout track of the album, has a definite Beatle-like sound to it, with swooning keys that slowly build as the song progresses.

Meanwhile, “Arabella” mashes R&B-style falsetto backing with a ’70s guitar riff in about as natural a way as one could expect. The band even pulls off some stomp-rock with the catchy “Snap Out Of It.”

Almost every song on the album features the band singing falsetto background vocals, which mostly works, with the notable exception of “Knee Socks.”

The main attraction for Monkeys fans has always been Turner’s lyricism. Few songwriters have the chops to drop literary references between lines about drunken romance the way Turner so effortlessly does. This album, however, shows him more restrained. In “I Want It All,” Turner uses two-word sentences and lets the instrumentation do the heavy lifting. This is a common theme throughout the album, which features some of the most intricately detailed and layered instrumentation the Arctic Monkeys have ever produced. Matt Helders is truly skilled on the drum set, and the slowed-down tempos allow him to shine.

This is not to say the show is stolen completely away from Turner’s writing on this album. He is still able to deliver one-liners about drunken hook-ups strong enough to make Drake and The Weeknd hang their heads in shame.  The single “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” is littered with quotables, and the aforementioned “No. 1 Party Anthem” encapsulates the sentiment of the album with the line “It’s not like I’m falling in love/ I just want you to do me no good, and you look like you could.”

It’s a moment later in that same song, though, that exemplifies how the Arctic Monkeys have grown and what makes this album special among their catalog. The line about not falling in love gives way to a brief second of silence followed by Turner crooning “Come on, come on, come on” over soft keys, the most musically beautiful moment on the album. This is the ultimate testament to what the once loud-rock Arctic Monkeys have accomplished: they’ve slowed it down and they’re still holding our attention.

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