The band’s initials, a new morning, an analogue radio frequency and an existential statement - the title of Arctic Monkeys’ fifth album AM suggests all of those things and more. And the record itself lives up to this pithily resonant billing by being, in drummer Matt Helders’ typically forthright estimation, “the album we’ve always been waiting to make”.
It starts with a sumptuously squelchy synthetic-sounding beat. This turns out to have been built out of all too human body parts, as all four Arctic Monkeys got together to contribute foot-stamps and knee-slaps - “which might make people think of Lederhosen,” admits frontman Alex Turner, “but really it’s the antithesis of that... and there was no bunting either.”
So AM’‘s opening moments eschew the queasy camaraderie of the ersatz hoedown in favour of a tautly compressed human pulse? “We wanted to come up with a different sort of clap”, Turner explains, “and the way Tchad Blake mixed it makes it sound like someone banging their head against a sci-fi force-field”.
“I like the way it feels dead wooden”, chimes in Matt Helders, in the unabashedly earth-bound spirit of drummers from time immemorial. And this exuberant collective attention to aural detail carries through each of AM’s 12 songs. Whether it’s the En Vogue-worthy backing vocals of “One For The Road”, the crunching Black Sabbath drum-lurch of “Arabella” or the maudlin pedal-steel of “No 1 Party Anthem”, ear-catching particulars never stand out for their own sake but constantly add to the greater glory of the whole.
And since meticulous sonics are no use without tunes, AM has those in clubs. From the lilting space age come-on of “Do I Wanna Know?” to the heady swoon of “Mad Sounds” to “Snap Out Of It”’s blatantly irresistible chorus, this is an album to sing along with even as you’re wondering if the lyrics can really be as good as they sound, before finding out on next hearing that they’re actually even better than your first thought.
Alex Turner’s reputation as a phrase-maker has been assured since the headlong rush of Arctic Monkeys’ early singles drove them to the fastest selling debut album of any British band in history. Still very much present and correct five albums in are the chewy verbal gobbets - “summat in your teeth”, “simmer down and pucker up” - which continue to release their flavour through multiple mastications. Ditto Turner’s way with a killer two-liner ( “Been wondering if your heart’s still open/And if so I wanna know what time it shuts” and “That place on memory lane you liked looks the same/But something about it’s changed” being two especially fine examples).
But what marks AM out as a real step forward in Alex Turner’s songwriting is the languid elegance with which these lyrics unfurl - easing seamlessly from verse into chorus and back again with the insidious logic of Jay-Z’s finest flows. Internal rhymes and alliteration abound, their effect intensified by Turner’s insinuating crooner’s delivery. He lingers tenderly over lines like “RU Mine?”’s “She’s a silver lining lone ranger riding through an open space in my mind” as if making them scan was the easiest and most natural thing in the world.
“There was a lot of sitting up on my own all night long battling with the puzzle this time - probably more than before”, Turner admits. “I had a dartboard in the back garden and I’d throw arrows as I’d sit there trying to write. There was definitely some symmetry in how the words were going and where the darts would land - a fair amount of missing the board altogether brought me the occasional treble twenty”.
Recorded in a small East Hollywood studio with long term collaborator James Ford riding the faders, the third album Arctic Monkeys have made in their adopted home of LA takes the best elements of its two predecessors and gives them an entirely fresh twist. In terms of AM’s overall sound, it would be stretching a point a little to call it Arctic Monkeys’ G-Funk album, but there’s definitely the odd echo of Warren G’s “Regulate” in the air.
“If someone asks ‘Is this the West Coast record?’ the question would normally have a different connotation, but that’s what it means to us,” Turner agrees. But anyone hoping to see Matt Helders throwing gang signs from behind his kit is going to be disappointed. The malt liquor of Death Row records is chased down by at the very least a Bacardi Breezer of what the drummer calls “Girlfriend music - the music our girlfriends were listening to at school when we were into Dr Dre”.
“With people like Aaliyah,” Turner explains, “what’s sometimes seen as being cheesy is actually a real coolness about the melodies, and we wanted to get a bit of the way that music moves into what we were doing. That also went hand in hand - in our minds at least - with Seventies rock ‘n’ roll: all those bands like Black Sabbath and the Groundhogs that we listen to very loud in the dressing room when we’re on tour... We call them ‘thin drum-stand bands’, because whatever the drums are standing on sounds like it’s a bit wobbly, but that’s part of what’s so great about them”.
Arctic Monkeys were fully aware of the dangers inherent in putting these ingredients together - “It’s total chemical reaction time”, Turner admits. “You take too much from one world and you don’t get the right colour smoke”. But from the minute “R U Mine” started to define itself as the signpost for the new direction, they knew they were on the right track.
“When we got to the breakdown and it dropped to them two [Helders and bassist Nick O’Malley] doing the backing vocals together, we all liked it so much, we just thought ‘Let’s make a record that surrounds that’”, Turner explains. “From then on I’d sing the part and they’d kind of wrap their voices around it”.
Were they doing that thing with their hands when they went for the high notes? “It’s all in the hands, but it helps if you wiggle your head around a bit too”.
Technology also played its part, but not the state-of-the-art kind. “Even before the band I used to mess around on an old four-track cassette recorder that belonged to my dad”, Turner remembers. “Then I got given one for my birthday last year, and we really liked the way it sounded. So we worked on it for three weeks straight till we wore out the mechanism. I definitely believe in songs existing inside bits of equipment and you just have to let them out - there’s a few riffs we owe that machine. There weren’t that much head room in it, and if we cranked up the gain and got Matt to play really soft, it sounded just like a sample. The snare we got that way became the DNA of the whole record”.
One of the main themes of AM seems to be going back to things that have fallen into disuse and finding how fresh they can be, whether that be an antique tape-recorder, or “I Wanna Be Yours”, the vintage John Cooper-Clarke poem they turn into a lights-down school disco slow jam on the album’s closing number. Those who’ve seen Arctic Monkeys play live over the past year - from the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics to the main stage at Glastonbury on a Friday - have already seen (and heard) the benefits of this newly open-minded approach.
“There was a time I couldn’t bring myself to play ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’”, Turner admits, “but we can strike up a pretty good cover of it now. There’s an excitement about this new album that makes it much easier for us to do the old ones justice. You get to a point where you’ve been round the block enough times to know that it’s kind of alright, and it’s not all meant to be about you anyway”.
Arctic Monkeys might be the first band in rock history to go to LA and find out that it’s not all about them. Anyone who thinks that sounds a bit grown-up will probably be reassured by the last thing they really liked about the AM soundwave which adorns the cover of the album. Alex Turner laughs: “It kind of looks like a bra”.
Ben Thompson, July 2013
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