“Lately, I’ve been seeing things,” Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner croons over the skill-saw chording that initiates “Black Treacle”, the second song on the band’s latest album, Suck It and See. What, pray tell, does Turner see? Why, “bellybutton piercings”, of course. It’s a heartwarming Arctic Monkeys moment: a sparkling detail of subcultural viscera acting as a peephole to the sublime, or, more rightly, as a storm-shutter to keep the sublime out. The rest of the lyric rolls smoothly over a found melody, apprehending the same mysterious night sky that has inspired generation of poets (rock and roll and otherwise) and snidely comparing it to a viscous, sickeningly-sweet pudding.
When Turner and the Monkeys burst headlong onto the British rock radar in the cold dawn of 2006, snideness was their calling card, if not the entirety of their post-millenial rebel pose. The breathless rockers that characterized their first two records relied on careening tempos and breakneck direction-changes as sonic points of interest, but the name of the game at the time was Turner’s lyrical invention. Dense and vivid narratives of working-class rogues and dissolute clubbers slashed their way to the listeners’ imaginations, with Turner’s sharpened Yorkshire brogue doing the lion’s share of the cutting. Those songs were observant, trenchant, unpredictable, and often very funny. But, nonetheless, snide. Snide in the very best sense of the word, but still snide.
Then came the third Arctic Monkeys album, Humbug, in 2009, and with it a subtle migration out of the established comfort zone. Largely produced by James Ford (also the dial-twiddler for Favourite Worst Nightmare and the new record in question), a few tracks were also set down with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age acting as overseer, and the smoothing down of the band’s notoriously spiky compositions was a not-unexpected result. The dreaded “M” word (maturity) was bandied about in not a small number of Humbug reviews, but it was hardly a set of toe-tappers and sappy ballads about mortgages and adorable children. If anything, the honing (the Homme-ing?) of Turner’s melodic sensibilities threw the quality of his songwriting into sharper relief. His lyrical twists and turns were as compelling as they’d always been, but freed from the frantic dynamics of the youthful Monkeys, they worked better as pop songs than they did as rapid-fire rhythmic dime-store sociology.
A quick scan of Suck It And See, the Arctic Monkeys’ fourth studio release, seems to promise a return to the vigorous sarcasm that launched them to domestic stardom. The crude tease of the album’s moniker is accompanied by a tracklisting full of snappy one-liner titles like “All My Own Stunts”, “Love Is a Laserquest”, and “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”. The actual musical content, however, is all about balance.
The lithe, jangling riff that kicks off the deceptively romantic “She’s Thunderstorms” is characteristic of a band that has gained more than a measure of concern for how they sound, a feature further supported by the surfeit of harmonizing here and elsewhere. The surprisingly anthemic title track shares the album opener’s musical elements as well as its lovesick tone, but neither song is doe-eyed or naïve about romance. Turner comes across as a weary soul who yearns for a relationship of interconnection but is under no illusions about the minefield that must be crossed to approach it. “Your love is like a studded-leather headlock / Your kiss, it could put creases in the road,” he sings at the start of “Suck It and See”. Alex Turner will give you a love song or two, sure, but he won’t skimp on his mode of expression to do so.
In case anybody was laboring under the misconception that the Monkeys’ habit of clever iconoclasty had faded, though, the first single “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” stands as proof that it hasn’t. Driven with sinister determination by a grimly-grinning death-march of a lead riff (which suggests Austin psych-rockers the Black Angels, at least at first), it’s bluesy, potent, swaggering, irresistible nonsense, and it’s wonderful stuff. Turner gleefully gives himself over to the jokey darkness, exhorting someone, anyone to “run with scissors”, “go into business with a grizzly bear”, and “bite the lighting / and tell me how it tastes”. It’s quite hard to picture any other writer/vocalist in rock managing to make a reference to the Macarena sound simultaneously hilarious and ominous, but Turner accomplishes it here.
The cuts that follow this unquestionable highlight allow some nostalgic Monkeys glory to be recaptured. “Library Voices” is of debut vintage, and “All My Own Stunts” features a callback to the title phrase of “Dancing Shoes” from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. I suppose “Brick By Brick” could be placed in the same category, but the numbingly simple Queens of the Stone Age pastiche is so profoundly non-Arctic Monkeys that it’s tough to know what to make of it at all. The nods to their own past are always brief and measured, though; this album was crafted by a band moving inescapably forward.
“Do you still think love is a laserquest,” Turner asks pointedly in an aforementioned tune, “or do you take it all more seriously?” The sparkling soundscape that accompanies this query hints at the first possibility even as it settles confidently on the second. Ponderous sobriety will never be the way of the Arctic Monkeys, and their prodigious cheekiness has hardly been tempered much on Suck It and See. But Alex Turner and his bandmates are clearly expanding their abilities and getting better at focusing their fire with every release. The result may purposely evade the sublime, but it transcends the snide as well. Perhaps the album title is not so much a crude tease as it is a nervy invitation. So I would recommend that you suck it. And see.