Songs about heavy nights, and the mornings after. It’s clearly been emotional…
The AM of the new Arctic Monkeys album is not the cheerful early morning, the domain of the refreshing shower and the healthy breakfast. Instead this is a place technically AM, but still dark were it not for the lights from the TV or mobile phone – an after-midnight world as much of the soul as it is of the clock. It’s a place of late-night drinking and poor decisions, of blurred boundaries, of pursuing the moment.
It’s a place that Alex Turner, the band’s songwriter, clearly finds filled with possibility. While Jarvis Cocker hid inside your wardrobe, Turner is writing the fifth Arctic Monkeys album from the vantage point of the sofa, occasionally the carpet. “Knee Socks”, one of the slighter songs on the album, pinpoints its locale: “You were sitting in the corner,” Turner sings, “By the coats all piled high…” Earlier on, we find him spilling drinks on his settee and drunk-dialling late at night.
Voice of a generation – it’s been a tough gig. Since the Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 debut album unveiled Alex Turner’s raw voice, great tunes and gift for what was not inaccurately called “social reportage”, it’s been hard for the band to fulfil expectations. They have got heavier (2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare; 2009’s Humbug) and experimented with a partial return to the indie rock sound of their debut (2011’s Suck It And See), and all have been huge commercial successes. Still, of late it has started to seem as if some of the band’s charm has been misplaced along the way. Turner’s jokes, unthinkably, even started to sound a little forced.
AM, however, feels a considerably more self-assured album: heavy in a dramatic and confident way, conceptually strong, and not without groove. More importantly, the album has returned Turner to a social milieu which he can anatomise with his customary talent. It’s the domain of the newly single man, a crepuscular world with its own codes and behaviours.
Opener “Do I Wanna Know?”, the collection’s finest rock song, serves as an establishing shot for the whole album. Over a crunching march-time blues riff, Turner ponders a relationship’s indeterminate state – does he really want a conclusive answer about the critical status of this love affair? As they do throughout the album, falsetto backing vocals, reminiscent of those favoured by Queens Of The Stone Age, serve to give expression to the dissenting opinions in the singer’s head. “R U Mine?” continues both the hard rock and the uncertainty – is this a fleeting tryst, or something more substantial? “One For The Road”, though a small song, mines the cliché of the expression for all it can offer, as the speaker, in fear of morning’s clarity, attempts to extend the night. “I Want It All” isn’t Turner’s finest song, but it fleshes out his world. “It’s a year ago since I drank your whisky and shared your coke/You left me listening to the Stones’ ‘2000 Light Years From Home’…”
AM has a strong, dramatic arc. For all these fervid nights, it’s impossible to escape the morning after, a mood broached particularly well in the Lennon /Pulp-like “Number 1 Party Anthem”, and particularly, “Fireside”. In this song, reminiscent of Julian Casablancas at his jaded-at-the-afterparty best, Turner surveys an empty hotel suite and ponders whether “it’s really gone for good/Or is it coming back around?” It’s a wonderfully well-articulated melancholy, from which it’s tough to bounce back.
That, however, is what the final few tracks attempt. “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” finds Turner back on the sofa with a phone in his hand, but the song is a rather more playful one. “Snap Out Of It” is a glam-rocky conversation about love with the lads back home, while “Knee Socks” sees the band approximating a sound part Justin Timberlake, part David Bowie.
It’s a fun few songs, but there’s no escaping the loneliness at the album’s core, and AM duly ends on a downbeat note, as Arctic Monkeys take on John Cooper Clarke’s punk-rock wedding reading “I Wanna Be Yours” (“I wanna be your Ford Cortina/I will never rust…”), turning it into a kind of indie rock Southern soul, with a beautiful end-of-the-night desperation. They’re not much older, but the experience of AM seems to have made Arctic Monkeys considerably, and profitably, wiser. Having made it through the night, they now sound ready to face the day.