Arctic Monkeys’ fifth studio album AM is the result of their decade (plus) of experience as a band and the distillation of their previous four albums into one remarkably solid and consistent (if consistently diverse) record. Unlike a great many of the current crop of “Indie” (read: not really independent) “alternative rock bands” out there, frontman and songwriter Alex Turner continues to dispense with filler material and creates a guitar-rich collection of very good songs without a bad listen in the entire arrangement.
There is a certain love-and-loss lyrical quotient to the collective lyrics of AM, almost making the case for its counting as a concept album. Many of the songs repeat motifs and even words between them, bookending themes of romance, sex and loneliness. Three of the song titles are questions, three titles feature versions of the word “want”, two titles feature the number “one”. Whether this is about the stages of love or about loss itself may depend on the listener (and how proximate their most recent breakup might have been).
Turner kicks of AM (a title inspired by the Velvet Underground’s 1985 release VU) with “Do I Wanna Know?”. The electronic-sounding, clapping drums of Matt Helders echo solo until a minimalistic, distorted and reverb-heavy guitar riff takes over the tune and brings in Turner’s low and pensive vocals as he recites an open letter to the object of his affections, a friend who clearly doesn’t know how he feels. By the first chorus, “Do I Wanna Know?” reaches an electric tapestry of sound, combining Turner’s deep, yet crooning voice, with high pitched accompaniment and dual guitars dueling in fast and slow paces. This well-mixed and divergent sound aids the poetry of Turner’s lyrics, showing the confusion of the song’s speaker and the varied levels of emotion.
“Do I Wanna Know?” is also the first introduction of one of Turner’s many repeating motifs as he makes reference to calling the object of his desire after enough drinks to become inebriated. This theme repeats in the obviously titled “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”. Here Turner expresses his frustration with a lover who ignores his “multiple missed calls” and only contacts him back in a wasted state. As so much of the rest of the album details the evolution of such similar relationship frustrations, the astute listener might wonder if both title questions of “Do I Wanna Know?” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” could be directed at the same person at different times in the relationship.
Similarly, the second track “R U Mine?”, about the uncertainty of the opening stages (and, again, frustrations) of romance, is echoed in the closing song “I Wanna Be Yours”. This final track (the only tune to have a co-writer in John Cooper Clarke) is a pleading and almost depressing song that echoes not only the similarly titled second track, but also “Do I Wanna Know?” in its reverberating sonic textures. In “I Wanna Be Yours”, Turner strips himself down into any object that his love interest might find useful, from a “vacuum cleaner, breathing in your dust” to a “coffee pot” to “lotion” to “portable heater”, giving up any individuality and allowing her to “call the shots”. While the lyrics may be occasionally ungainly, these actually propel the pleading sorrow the speaker struggles with as he lists off his desire to belong to her in any way possible, even as a square peg in a round hole. A repeat listen to the record shows the foreshadowing in “R U Mine?” as Turner cries out his angst at being “a puppet on a string” for the girl who is somewhere he is not as he peruses the “silver lining, Lone Ranger riding” that he’s fallen for. “R U Mine?” is the first heavy track on the record and demonstrates Turner’s perfect willingness to experiment with metal and hard rock even with his soul, classic rock and hip hop influences.
“One for the Road” is the third track and the first to feature Queens of the Stoneage’s Josh Homme on guest vocals. Homme employs his addictive falsetto here, both duetting and harmonizing with Turner in this sad song of disaster (of more than one kind) and accompanying him with tasteful “Woo-Hoo” background cries. Turner’s rapid-fire vocals in this slow song evoke memories of some of the better Oasis songs from two decades back, quickly and easily ripping out complex poetry without sounding quite like a “rap”.
Homme’s second guest spot comes on the album’s eleventh and second-to-last track entitled “Knee Socks”. Turner sings over largely sparse music, punching drums with reverberating guitar chords occasionally striking, until the chorus brings the entire band back into the fray. When a soulful, almost gospel bridge takes over the tune in its second half, Homme’s lower, croon becomes a haunting, echoing background to the painful lyrics of missing someone’s presence in a once-shared abode. Homme’s voice changes the entire map of this song from a remembrance to a haunting nightmare that threatens to evoke tears in the listener.
Turner’s voice takes on a similarly haunting (and here-echoing) tone in the fourth song “Arabella”. This song proves out Turner’s statement that Black Sabbath was an influence on AM as the semi-funky sounds of the verses give way to a chorus that borrows so very much from Sabbath’s “War Pigs” that the earlier quartet have a case for co-writing credits. Like much of Sabbath’s work, there is a strange science fiction to Turner’s lyrics which continue to focus on a woman he clearly loves, but finds incredibly troubled. The distorted guitar solo from “Arabella” also evokes classic rock from the past with drums and bass continuing the Sabbath sound, even as Turner continues to sing in his low tone that sounds anything-but-Ozzy.
“I Want It All” is another hard-driving song with the thundering bass of Nick O’Malley under Turner’s often do-wop vocals before guitarist Jamie Cook accompanies Turner with an almost Boston-sounding guitar lead that takes over the song without quite drowning out the vocals. Musically “I Want It All” is what Arctic Monkeys is all about… complex and infinitely listenable. After the rising and driving rock of “I Want It All”, AM shifts into the deceptively titled “No. 1 Party Anthem”, which is a slow, blues rock track with beautiful arpeggio breaks and an emotional, ballad-like construction that, again, describes a woman he’s missing.
“Mad Sounds” continues the bluesy guitar and slow, pensive vocals with very little reverb or psychedelia to be found in the track. While “No. 1 Party Anthem” evokes memories of the Faith No More version of the Commodores’ “Easy”, “Mad Sounds” starts with a blues guitar riff that sounds something like The Screaming Trees performing Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago”. The song continues into a hopeful and beautifully mixed pop-rock song with rich bass, the keyboards of producer James Ford and a very Southern American sounding “Ooh-la-la” backing vocal.
“Fireside” continues both the pensive, introspective lyrics of “Mad Sounds” and “Anthem” as well as the funky and driving music from the earlier tracks and the Do-Wop background voices that permeate about half the album. If AM is a concept of relationship stages, “Fireside” is a remarkably beautiful musical painting that sounds like a combination of about seventy different 1970s genres all detailing the doubts and potential end of a relationship as Turner’s lyrics repeatedly question his subject and himself. In that “Fireside” leads directly into the closed bookend of “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”, the theme is almost undeniable.
AM is an excellent example of and call for the “Album”. Whether conceptual or not, Arctic Monkeys’ fifth LP is a wonderfully cohesive and diverse album that fits together incredibly well. Lyrically AM is Alex Turner at his most poetic to date and he structures his music around these strong words for maximum impact making lyrical analysis almost impossible to resist. The great news about this lyrically complex and poetic album is that AM doesn’t have to be about anything at all, really. With its multi-layered and complex music (incorporating many subgenres of rock and a great many styles in one cohesive whole), this is a great album for repeat listening, regardless of content. Those lyrically inclined, however, may have a hell of a trip in store for them.