Counterbalance: Arctic Monkeys’ ‘AM’

This week's Counterbalance got some interstellar-gator skin boots and a helter skelter 'round her little finger and I ride it endlessly. Take a dip in the Arctic Monkeys' daydreams with their latest release.
Arctic Monkeys

Mendelsohn: Buzz bands come and buzz bands go. I’ve seen my fair share, I’m sure you have as well. They typically explode onto the scene, suck up as much media hype, adoration, and money as they can before fading rather quickly back into the oblivion of normalcy whence they came. I thought that would have been the case in 2006 when the Arctic Monkeys, fueled by the Internet and anointed as one of the first blog buzz bands, hit with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. The hype was justified, as the Monkeys, led by Alex Turner, racked up critical acclaim and record sales in England before slowly winning over the United States.

Their first album was great, Klinger. A frenetic re-envisioning of the post-punk indie rock revival that had grown a little stale. In the intervening years, I tried to keep track of the Arctic Monkeys as they released three more albums and a side project. I heard good things but never really got around to listening to any of it. Seven years later, the Arctic Monkeys are still making music and still racking up the critical acclaim with 2013’s AM, which, according to the curators of the Great List, ranked at number eight for the year.

I knew going in that the 2013 version of the Arctic Monkeys would be vastly different from the 2006 version. None of us live in a vacuum and the music was bound to change. But I couldn’t get into AM. The record still sort of sounded like the Arctic Monkeys, but the frenetic energy and high speed guitar licks had mutated into a darker, spaced-out, bass-driven slice of rock ‘n’ roll. I wasn’t so sure I liked it.

Klinger: But then you realized that AM is actually a terrific record, and a natural move from the youthful exuberance of their debut, right? This is what I’m hoping to hear here, Mendelsohn. I was a bit skeptical at first, too, but AM won me over completely somewhere about the third time through. This is a smart album made by a group that has fully internalized a lot of history in their young years, and there’s a terrific attention to detail that keeps me actively listening. How many albums can you really say that about?

At first, I was thinking that there was a sameishness to a lot of the songs, especially right at the beginning. But after a while I realized that they were purposefully reintroducing little riffs and bitty-bits from the previous song into the next, leading up to the very impressive new single “Arabella”, at which point I laughed out loud as the song dropped out completely and drummer Matt Helders began quoting Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” on the hi-hat. Who am I to resist something like that?

Mendelsohn: I must have listened to this album at least ten times before it finally sunk its claws into my grey matter. Around the fifth time through it I was tempted to call for a mulligan and skip this album altogether. Then one morning I woke up with “One for the Road” stuck in my head and that was it. Now I’m wondering why it took me so long. Seriously. This record is damn near perfect. As you noted, there is an amazing amount of detail in this record. In little under 45 minutes, the Arctic Monkeys manage to quote nearly the entirety of classic rock, pay homage to Josh Homme’s signature brand of desert rock (plus enlist his help for backing ooo’s and ahh’s), recreate hip-hop beats and riffs that would make Timbaland proud, and make John Cooper Clarke’s punk poetry sound poetic. “Arabella” contains nearly all of those elements. The first half might have well been an Aaliyah track, the next bit is nothing but Black Sabbath and then it slides right back — seamlessly. It’s audacious, Klinger. Who does that?

The entire album is like that. And then you hit “No. 1 Party Anthem”, a little ditty that David Bowie might have released in the mid-’70s, and you get hit with the full brunt of Turner’s acerbic social observations. When you are rocking through songs like “R U Mine?” or “I Want It All”, it is easy to forget that Turner might be one of the best lyricists of his generation. His stream-of-consciousness lyrics always came rapid-fire but now he’s stretched them out, leaving space for some falsetto and backing oohh-oohhs. I’m kicking myself for not paying more attention to this band as they matured from talented upstarts to self-assured purveyors of high-caliber rock.

Klinger: See now, that’s what I was hoping you’d say. On the other hand I was hoping you wouldn’t say that because I’ve been itching for an argument lately. But you mention their general genre quotifying throughout the album, and that’s something that I got to thinking about as I’ve been listening to AM. Arctic Monkeys are like a lot of the bands I’ve found myself drawn to over the past decade or so (the Hold Steady, Art Brut, Drive-By Truckers) — they’re so completely in love with the idea of rock ‘n’ roll that they can’t help but drop in a (usually) well-placed reference, slipping in a snippet of lyric or an album title that conveys the mood as a form of shorthand.

Just a cursory listen through AM brought up nods to Lee Hazelwood, Big Joe Turner, the Modern Lovers, the aforementioned Sabbath, the Stones’ “2000 Light Years from Home”… and double points for linking the Ronettes “Be My Baby” to the beginning of Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

While I’m a complete sucker for it, I can’t help wondering if it’s part of some overall trend that’s making rock an increasingly niche market, something that’s made by rock nerds for rock nerds. As a rock nerd in good standing, I’m OK with that, but is that closing the doors for outsiders?

Mendelsohn: It’s not just rock — music in general has become a niche market thanks to the democratization of the industry brought about by the Internet. Music is no longer the shared experience it once was. As a result, bands can now explore, create, and produce pieces as they see fit — catering to the needs of the consumer as opposed to the one-size-fits-all mentality of the record labels of yesterday. Is it a bad thing? I guess that depends on how you look at it.

I certainly don’t think the Arctic Monkeys are closing any doors — if anything, they are opening as many doors as possible, inviting just about everyone in for the party. You can cite a list of classic rock influences working their way through this record and I can put together a list of hip-hop production references that nod to Timbaland’s work that made its way across the pop landscape as well as Dr. Dre’s brand of smooth West Coast gangsta rap (see “Do I Wanna Know?”, “One for the Road”, “Arabella”, and “Why’d You Only Cal Me When You’re High?” — loop the first eight bars and what do you get?). The band even goes so far to employ a drum machine on the remake of John Cooper Clarke’s “I Wanna Be Yours”. Not that out of the ordinary, but it doesn’t seem like a rock band making music strictly for rock nerds.

Klinger: Well, that’s a relief. I was afraid that it must be somehow geeky because I understood it. But I think it’s Turner and company’s awareness of pop (as in music) culture that’s driven at least some of their appeal among the critics. Like you, I was aware of Whatever People Say I’m Not, That’s What I Am and then sort of lost touch over the years. The main reason they popped up on my radar as often as they did is because I, like most rock nerds, am a devoted Mojo reader, and they’ve always treated Alex Turner in particular like a cool nephew, nurturing his natural pop geek tendencies and (deservedly) applauding his referential and reverential propensities.

You mentioned “No. 1 Party Anthem” (which I think sounds more Lennonian than Bowiesque, but to each his own), and for me the little run from that song into “Mad Sounds” is where the album really reveals itself. The former track turns the cliches of music on their heads by melding them to a doleful, dreamy melody, while the latter sounds (to me) for all the world like a latter-day Nick Lowe — just the stuff to melt the heart of an old curmudgeon like me. Hearing that shift in tone from the floor-shakers that had come prior made me sit up and take notice, but then so did that nifty little bit about Mean Streets, which uses hip-hop cadences with hardly a trace of self-consciousness. And that ability to use those sounds comfortably and naturally seems to be something that this new generation of rock musicians can bring to the table, which I find fascinating and ultimately quite heartening. Like you, I missed out on Arctic Monkeys’ evolution, but I’m looking forward to catching up, as well as seeing where they go next.