By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)
For over seven years, Arctic Monkeys have been sending the same message to music critics, fans and the world at large: Don’t put us in a box. Obviously, they aren’t the first band to share that sentiment. No one aspires to be a one trick pony. But what makes them interesting is that they have managed to say it in a number of ways, and in multiple contexts. Not only do they mean it musically, but also on a personal level. With each album, they’ve made some form of alteration to both their sound and their image. Sometimes the change is subtle. Sometimes it is dramatic. Their always-evolving direction is as unpredictable as it is impressive. It is reminiscent of a line by Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, “Whatever you think is supposed to happen, the exact reverse opposite of that is gonna happen.” With AM, the band’s fifth album, Arctic Monkeys have continued this trend – and with fascinating results.
When the band burst on the British music scene in the mid-2000’s, they were hailed to be the biggest British band since The Beatles, or at least, you know, Oasis. And yet, they didn’t sound anything like that. At the ages of 19 and 20, they were talented and energetic, but much rowdier and rawer than their spiritual predecessors. They were supposed to be the next wave of Britpop, but their sound was more like a combination of indie, garage rock and punk. In the early going, they charmed Britain with an irresistible combination of catchy guitar riffs, clever lyrics and an unmistakable sense of attitude. Their debut album, fittingly titled Whatever People Think I Am, That’s What I’m Not, was the fastest selling music in debut album in British music history. Seriously. But for all their put-on cockiness and swagger, Alex Turner, Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley, Matt Helders, and at the time, Andy Nicholson, weren’t prepared for the limelight. Remember, after all, they were just kids singing about getting drunk and hooking up on the dance floor. Lead singer/ songwriter Alex Turner was shy and skeptical of the rock star life. But unlike MGMT, the band didn’t particularly have disdain for their commercial success. They would adjust in time.
A year after the smashing success of their debut, Arctic Monkey released a follow-up with massive expectations. It was their first collaboration with producer James Ford, who helped them craft a leaner sound. Favorite Worst Nightmare overall was faster, louder and more impressive than everything they had released before. The band had grown musically at its most basic level – each member was better at playing their respective instrument. This opened up the possibility for the band – under Ford’s direction – to try some different things, and it paid off. The album spawned three singles in the UK and garnered nearly universal critical acclaim.
Another difference in the trajectories of Arctic Monkeys and MGMT is each band’s attitude towards collaboration. Whereas MGMT’s metamorphosis was the result of the band locking themselves away in a rustic cabin and looking inwards, Arctic Monkeys’ happened because the band opened themselves up to different possibilities. For their third record, they turned again to James Ford, but with a twist. For the first time, Arctic Monkeys recorded an entire LP in the States. The tracks that were produced by Ford were recorded in New York City. However, the band recorded a portion of the album on the other side of the country, in the Mojave Desert, with album co-producer Queens of the Stone Age singer and stoner rock icon Josh Homme. His influence on the record was both apparent and remarkable. In Humbug, the band took a step, for the first time, into psychedelic rock. It actually sounded like it was recorded in a desert. It was sludgy, isolated and atmospheric in a way that Arctic Monkeys hadn’t been in the past. The radical change was embraced by many but rejected by some. There will always be those that want to hear the same thing over and over again, rather than see a band demonstrate growth. Like it or not, though, the album represented a turning point in the young band’s career.
By 2011, Arctic Monkeys were a drastically different band than they were in the early to middle-2000s when they exploded out of Sheffield, England. While the enthusiasm for the band at the peak had simmered down considerably, their popularity continued to spread as the band regularly headlined music festivals and toured relentlessly. And along the way, they actually started growing into their initially feigned, larger than life persona. They made the decision to permanently relocate to Los Angeles. In six years, Alex Turner went from coyly announcing his band’s presence by saying things like “We’re Arctic Monkeys. Don’t believe the hype” to actually owning their rock star swagger. “Our drummer over there is Matt. He’s the one the girl you came here with is always thinking about,” Turner teased at a 2012 show in Chicago.
The band exuded confidence, and it showed in their fourth album, Suck it and See. The title is an English idiom for saying essentially that you won’t know if you like something unless you try it – a dare, perhaps, to those that doubted the new direction of the band. But just when you thought that they were going in a heavier direction, Suck It and See was the band’s poppiest album to date. However, it didn’t sound very much like Britpop. On the contrary, it was crisp, clean and surprisingly American sounding. True to their newfound lifestyle, Suck It and See was all sun-soaked California grooves and easy listening that often sounded as if it could have been released in the 1970s.
That brings us to the band’s impressive fifth album, AM. We should have known by now to expect something totally different, but who could have expected this? Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not, indeed. The statement is truer today than ever. AM is a composite of all of the styles that the band had dabbled in the past, with an unexpected dose of R&B. It’s ground for the band that is both unfamiliar and entirely welcome. For this album, Arctic Monkeys united again with long time producer James Ford, but also with the dance-oriented producer Ross Orton. Josh Homme also makes an appearance. But when I first heard it, I thought that it sounded like they had been hanging out with The Black Keys. And then I remembered that that is because, well, they have. It shows in all the best ways. There are also some parts that might remind you of early-period Phoenix, Fitz and the Tantrums and even Drake. In other words, bands and artists that prior to this album never would have been mentioned in the same breath as Arctic Monkeys. But after AM and this, all bets are off. Don’t put them in a box.
What’s also interesting is the change in lyrical content. Their fifth album finds Alex searching deep within himself – or at least, his character. Several of the standout tracks are questions. The songs “Do I Wanna Know?,” “R U Mine?,” and “Why Do You Only Call Me When You’re High?” find Turner considering both love and lust in a different manner than he has in the past. He’s singing about the pain of longing for another person – be it for someone whom he cares for, or someone whom he only calls when he’s high – rather than the thrill of it, but he never loses his cool. He sings, coos and wails with more soul than ever before. Drummer Matt Helders’ usually sharp backup vocals, are a little softer, a little smoother.
AM is, to date, without a doubt the smoothest album in Arctic Monkeys’ discography, which is not to say that it’s perfect; it’s not. And neither are any of their other albums. But it is a testament to their ever-expanding range. Just a couple of albums ago, people thought that Arctic Monkeys were on the down side of their career. While their popularity and commercial viability may have peaked in Britain, and while they never became the mega-hit in the US that they were overseas, they don’t appear to be fading away anytime soon. They are achieving something that few bands accomplish after releasing a couple successful but limited albums. They are continuously showing musical growth in increasingly surprising and imaginative ways. In actuality, the evolution of the band suggests that Arctic Monkeys’ best work could be yet to come.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.