Rating:If you asked me a month ago to make a list of the most wildly overrated bands on the 21st century, Arctic Monkeys would have landed somewhere near the top. That the raucous British foursome seemingly rose out of nowhere to almost universal acclaim in 2006 wasn’t the problem—after all, the bawdy Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was a blast, frontman Alex Turner’s syrupy Sheffield accent ensuring that his rapidly slung quips stick with the listener. But after winning a Mercury Prize, the accolades and hype kept pouring in, and it got to the point where music writers (especially from the UK) raved about the exuberant and debauched post-punkers as one of the best British bands of all time. Hell, London saw them as iconic enough to play the opening ceremony for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Hyperbole has been aligned as closely with Arctic Monkeys as their vividly outlandish name. Their more recent albums have shifted musical direction, yet experimentation alone isn’t cause for automatic gushing. By the time 2011’s Suck It and See rolled around—a slower paced record that traded in the Josh Homme-produced psychedelic rock of 2009’s Humbug for a digression into their obvious influences of the Beatles and Rolling Stones—I’d almost completely written them off. But Arctic Monkeys fifth record, AM, has changed all that, and if this is a bellwether for things to come, the new album is even more cause for excitement.
It’s easy to be skeptical of edgier bands moving toward more mainstream anthem-rock (earlier this year Foals did exactly that, with disappointing results), but Arctic Monkeys have finally put up the kind of professional product that warrants the swagger across an arena stage. Instead of music with the temperament of (and often lyrics about) getting kicked out of clubs or rapid-firing snappy zingers in the hope of getting laid, AM’s version of Arctic Monkeys orders from the top shelf and isn’t afraid to reveal a few scars as part of its seduction.
On AM, Arctic Monkeys waste no time showing what a game-changer this record will proceed to be. “Do I Want to Know?” opens with a thunderous drum beat and soon a fuzzed-out guitar lays on an infectious riff as Turner sings about his familiar subjects of liquor and ladies, but from a decidedly more vulnerable perspective than fans of the earlier albums will be accustomed to. Instead of telling one of his little chickadees, “Put on your dancing shoes/ You sexy little swine,” as he did on the group’s debut, here he’s pining after a girl from his past with the devastating chorus, “Crawling back to you/ Ever thought of calling when you’ve had a few?/ Cause I always do.” In describing the songwriting process for AM (an album in which Homme returns for a guest appearance), Turner cited the major influences of John Lennon and Dr. Dre, with some Outkast, Aaliyah and Black Sabbath thrown in for good measure. That’s a strange brew, one that’s more evident later in the album, but with the plodding drum and full-bodied guitar, “Do I Wanna Know?” charges out of the gates more akin to the White Stripes or Black Keys.
Turner addresses the other side of the drunk-dialing coin later (as if he’s getting a taste of his own medicine from earlier albums) with standout track “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and here the hip-hop influence are more apparent, with a shifty bassline and beat reminiscent of “The Next Episode” or Slim Shady-era Eminem. “R U Mine?” continues Turner’s theme of tainted love with sharp-edged guitar buzz that backs fleet vocal work on lines like, “She’s a silver lining lone ranger riding through an open space/ In my mind when she’s not right there beside me/ And I go crazy because here isn’t where I want to be.” Meanwhile, Turner does manage to channel a hint of Lennon on crunchy guitar and cymbals-heavy “Arabella” (a track that, at times, musically calls to mind a touch of Jack White as well). “One for the Road” evokes more shoulder-shimmies, and the bouncy bass beat of “Knee Socks” isn’t far off from UK-compatriots Franz Ferdinand. While Arctic Monkeys are still bouncing off the walls at times, there’s also an ample dose of slower, more melancholy tracks like the keys-heavy and misleadingly titled “No. 1 Party Anthem,” the mournful organ of “Mad Sounds” and the soulful closer “I Wanna Be Yours.”
This is an afterhours record if there ever was one, a near perfect cocktail of uppers and downers that should help win over remaining doubters. AM (a multilayered title alluding simultaneously to the band’s initials, early morning hours and a radio frequency) plays as the end result of wanton experimentation, as though Arctic Monkeys have worked their way through the urgency of youthful impulses and several passing phases that hinged on aping their heroes for credibility before finally growing up and confidently strutting their own identity. Some of the early accolades may have been premature, but with AM there’s little room to deny that Arctic Monkeys have evolved.