Arctic Monkeys newest, fifth album, AM, may be the best collection of songs to hear while walking in a big city after midnight. It’s filled with an attitude of cool nonchalance and a tempo that remains mid-level throughout.
Out only a few weeks, AM has already been nominated for the Mercury Prize, the UK’s gift for their home-bred favorites, and hit number 1 on the UK Albums Chart. These guys are definitely the best thing to come from England since Radiohead, but they lost themselves in the California desert while recording this one.
The songs are sparse and direct, each held down by a clopping, barely- there rattle of drum and bass from Matt Helders and Nick O’Malley. The first track, “Do I Wanna Know?,” burns slow like one of those fat lavender candles. A sinister stomp marches in, while a dark foreboding guitar peels around the corner. Leader Alex Turner, now sporting a hard glint of tenacity in his eye, wonders if the one he sees romantically sees him the same, but, does he even want to know?
The catchiest and most familiar-sounding chorus is on a song released months in advance, “R U Mine?” Helders adds a pile of drums and his rising falsetto, something they explore at great volumes here. The vocals get real high, especially on “One For The Road,” which features Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age (he’s on “Knee Socks,” too).
“Arabella” is a weird mix of crunchy Seventies-era butt-rock with a guitar solo caught on meteoric fumes and a bass line like ice melting in a glass of lukewarm water. The best song, “Fireside,” moves brusquely and steady like a locomotive through a tide of twinkling organ and rising guitar.
On “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” Turner really needs to drink a cup of water and get some sleep. It’s a raw piece of smoking blues that walks right over your face. Turner still expertly weaves delicately worded phrases between his prudent guitar licks like he’s always done. “I wanna pull your hair in deep devotion,” he swoons on “I Wanna Be Yours.” Slick as ever, but crumpled in a loveless gutter. Will somebody please love this guy?
The sweet chasm, “Mad Sounds,” is a very dull hit single for mid-90’s lite rock radio. Every band should find a place somewhere on a new record to tip-toe outside their comfort zone, but the ooh-la-la-las and the treading organs on this one just don’t work. Similarly, “No. 1 Party Anthem,” is the sappiest of Arctic Monkeys songs. The tempo cuts in half and in the background a piano hides, while Turner goes milky with the lyrics. It’s certainly not terrible, but if any other millennial rock band released it, it would briskly be
The closer, “I Wanna Be Yours,” is a beautiful ode to a love deep as the Pacific Ocean and moves like a wave lapping toward the shore. It’s a simple song that swells with a longing for desire but fades without alarm, leaving the listener wondering where the hell the new Arctic Monkeys album went.
AM is not the tough, stoner-sludge rock record one might’ve hoped for with all the supposed Black Sabbath inspiration and Homme hand-lending, but it’s definitely a mark worth celebrating for the Monkeys. The songs mirror the emotions of an endless night of loneliness and dread and intoxicated contemplation. They’re waving goodbye to their early snotty selves and waking in a new disheveled morning.