The first time I heard Sheffield, England’s Arctic Monkeys back in 2006 it was a revelation. I remain unsure of the post-punk revival description that mainstream critics give them, I just knew, back then and recall with advantageous nostalgia at the time of this writing, that they were unlike any band I had ever heard. They were aggressive, witty, and completely without pretense. Seeing them live at Tempe’s Marquee Theater was a frenetic experience that left my heart pounding an hour afterwards. It was a complete contrast in styles as Voxtrot opened for them (remember Voxtrot? What happened to those guys?).
Tracks from their debut—the fastest selling debut in English history—Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not and sophomore release, Favourite Worst Nightmare, raced across my iPod for many a workout and in the latter part of the last decade no band could pull off the magic and intensity that the Arctic Monkeys could. Offerings like “A Certain Romance,” “From the Ritz to Rubble,” “Brainstorm,” and “Do Me a Favour” weren’t just straight-laced bangers, they were a soundtrack to a mind-state of young adulthood; a tale of drunken excess, modern insecurity, and a commentary on the failings and miscues of a decadent and hopeless culture of conspicuous consumption and superfluousness.
Even slower tracks such as “Mardy Bum,” “Fluorescent Adolescence,” and “Riot Van” complemented the band’s larger narrative. Far from mere novelties, these songs expressed the universal uncertainties of romantic relations and coming of age youthful exuberance.
Unfortunately (for fans and casual observers alike), sometime around 2009, lead singer and chief lyricist Alex Turner underwent a catastrophic change of heart. Rather than construct the sort of ditties that made his collective world famous, Turner focused is principle songwriter duties on his—what I am guessing—real world romantic conundrums. The band’s third and fourth studio offerings, Humbug and Suck it and See respectively, were absent of the angst-fueled three-minute escapades that fans had come to expect.
If critical reception and album sales are any sort of gauge, this newer, softer approach can be considered a step backwards. If Whatever People Say.. and Favourite Worst Nightmare are still on heavy rotation, Humbug and Suck it and See serve as almost afterthoughts; each with a mere handful of tracks worthy of an occasional listen. Every fan can expect some sort of evolution with their favorite artists and bands, but a metamorphosis this dramatic can only leave us scratching our heads.
Which brings me to the band’s most recent offering, 2013’s A.M. Rather than reverting back to the formula that made
Arctic Monkeys the Arctic Monkeys, Turner doubles down on his all but douche-chill inducing romantic, heartstring pulling crooning. A.M. isn’t just another salvo in terms of what we have seen from more recent offerings, it is almost a complete departure from the definitive sound that made the band a beloved treasure to begin with.
The first thing you notice on this album is the slick and clean production, which is yet again a departure from the Monkey’s earlier work. Played against this soundscape, the lead single “Do I Wanna Know” and cuts like “Mad Sounds” (complete with a cringe-worthy “Oh la la la” refrain) sound artificial and so decidedly pop that it is hard to wrap your mind around the idea that this is actually the same band that used to sing of pub fights and bedding fat chicks.
This isn’t to say A.M. is a complete failure. “No. 1 Party Anthem” is a masterpiece of the modern courting ritual:
She’s a certified mind blower,
Knowing full well that I don’t
May suggest there’s somewhere I might know her
Just to get the ball to roll
Drunken monologues, confused because
It’s not like I’m falling in love
I just want you to do me no good
And you look like you could
Lyrics like these are a play on the idea of picking up a gal at night club, indicating that despite the lies we tell our friends, the number one “anthem” of these sorts of encounters is not alpha-male success, but rather sad and pathetic rejection. As great I think this song is, the cynic in me asks, “Didn’t we already hear this tale on past contributions such as ‘7’ and ‘Red Light Indicates Doors are Secure’?”
“Arabella,” which liberally borrows Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” rift, is another track that merits consideration for the simple fact that the chorus shows glimpses of past intensity; it is a reminder of what the Arctic Monkeys once were and just that brief flirtation brings excitement.
The remaining tracks on the album do not even merit mention in this space. They are but slower tempo pop songs all focused on wooing the opposite sex with the only departure being “Why You’d Only Call Me When You’re High?,” which still, at its core, a song about courting a lady, but at least it’s funny.
Whether the band understands it or not, the very nature of their sound is no longer present and that creates a sense of befuddled confusion. Albums one and two sound little like the three that have followed. It is like listening to two different bands altogether. This certainly doesn’t mean the band that composed A.M. is bad, quiet the opposite: A.M. debuted at number one in a number of countries and is a sales success. The issue here is that the magic, the energy captured in those earlier albums was so wonderfully awesome that the Arctic Monkeys of 2013 pale in comparison.
If I dare pontificate, I would say—sooner rather than later—the Arctic Monkeys will realize that they are best when they are doing what they did best: creating the sort of intense, witty, and unabashed rock music that made them famous.
Having achieved continued success might serve as reason enough to ignore their core audience’s desire to see them revert to their former selves. It is quite likely that the present Arctic Monkeys are here to stay and it is equally likely that their core audience just might stop giving a shit.