On the surface, the Arctic Monkeys of 2013 seem like a vastly different proposition to the youthful group of lads that picked up the Mercury Music prize with their seminal debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not in 2006. 7 short years have flown past with the band going through several drastic stylistic changes, musically and aesthetically, as well as releasing 4 more LPs that have never disappointed, to arrive at AM, a surprising album for many that has been critically lauded since its release in September this year. It is a collection of songs that has redefined them as a band again and garnered them a third nomination for the Mercury.
At first glance, it seems a seismic shift has taken place with the band, with singles Do I Wanna Know? and Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High? heavy on the questions marks, and seemingly more akin to Dr. Dre’s signature G-funk than the Monkey’s early garage rock. However, if you actually listen to what’s going on musically, things really haven’t changed that much since the days of Fake Tales of San Francisco; simple, heavy riffs in guitars and bass, precise, tight work from the rhythm section, and witty, wry lyrics delivered in that unique, unmistakable accent. Alright, the production may be totally different (out go the distortion pedals, in comes the reverb and heavily compressed percussion) and the lyrics are a lot more introverted and self-analytical than the urban poetry of the past, but it’s the same kind of song-writing, merely wrapped in a different sonic sheath.
In fact, if you look at 2009’s Humbug or 2011’s Suck It and See, a similar chameleonic change occurred, only channelling the spirit of stoner rock or 70s glam as opposed to 90s hip-hop, so it should be of little surprise to see the band moving their sound into uncharted territory once more. This really is an unusual thing to do; can you think of any other popular rock bands that have altered their sound so drastically and repeatedly whilst keeping a very high standard of song-craft (whatever you think of Humbug and SIAS, there are great tunes on both that improve every time they’re revisited) and retaining a solid fan-base and hitting number 1 every time? For this feat alone they deserve to be a serious contender for this year’s award. In fact, these changes made AM much more appealing and interesting that I ever expected it to be; the falsetto vocals, chugging basslines and handclap snares, all slowed down to 90bpm, are much more akin to the music I enjoy most in 2013 than the Monkey’s early demos, however closely I hold them to my heart.
As well as the G-funk that is so prevalent throughout the record, there is one other standout style of song on AM: the ballads. The band have always done these [little number called Mardy Bum anyone?], but never have we had 3 that are as fulfilling and emotive as No. 1 Party Anthem, Mad Sounds and I Wanna Be Yours. The first is a crooned, piano-led take on breakout single I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, whilst the second is an ode to great songs, surrounded by shimmering guitars with an “Ooh-la-la” chorus straight out of the 60s songwriters manual.
The closing track has to be one of the best they’ve ever written, from a group who’ve made phenomenal closers something of a signature. Bizarre metaphors, lifted from a John Cooper Clarke poem, are manipulated to fit the hypnotic melody, with an accompaniment that builds up slowly to create a powerful wall of sound. It sounds ultimately more content and satisfied than Turner ever has done to date.
The more mature lyrical content is another unexpected and remarkable development, with much of it centred on Turner’s own lack of confidence in his love life and emotions, but still using surreal metaphors to great effect and generally being much funnier than most of the song-writing today. Try and listen to the words of No. 1 Party Anthem or Do I Wanna Know? without being impressed by the subtle yet clever wordplay. It’s much less in-yr-face than in the past (the over-the-top psychedelic imagery is largely gone) and more rewarding than ever before. The innovative, falsetto backing vocals deserve a mention as well, adding cohesiveness to the set as well as being one of the most distinctive and interesting things about it. It shows a growing maturity in terms of arrangement and adds a playful sense of fun, clearly influenced by The Beatles.
There are a few hiccups throughout the album, with I Want It All and Snap Out Of It aping the increasingly bland chugging Britpop of Blur, whilst Knee Socks has an attention-grabbing R&B atmosphere but little substance. These blips take little away from the whole though, which is as diverse and entertaining as any album I’ve heard this year, and a significant achievement for a band who could have all too easily been pigeon-holed into a dull indie cliché many years ago.
So should AM be the recipient of the Mercury in a fairly impressive shortlist? I don’t think so. It’s definitely up there, and should receive plaudits for continuing to evolve and for bring us some great, great songs – as well as continuing their remarkable run of top albums – but it’s too inconsistent for the title. Go on Laura Marling, you can have it. Arctic Monkeys will undoubtedly have another chance, with another totally new sound, and I for one cannot wait to hear it.