Back in 2006, Arctic Monkeys’ rise on the British charts and in the hearts of critics was nearly meteoric. The Monkeys’ prehistoric days were punctuated by scuzzed-but-sweet demos that went viral, portraying unpretentious tales of love and getting kicked out of clubs on the sharp Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.
They were cheeky young men gazing at “sexy little swines” then, but the fellows are learned older men now, with a performance at the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony as a notch in their increasingly prolific belt. Not bad for a band that’s been around for less than 10 years. Now it’s 2013, and Arctic Monkeys are certain about what they want. Recently relocated to Los Angeles, the quartet has returned with fifth album, AM, a taut and well-dressed record by the Sheffield boys that once donned knackered Converse.
On Arctic Monkeys’ last few records, the group has been drifting gradually toward a more formulaic approach in song structure, with singles progressing from eager to earworm. AM is a record that’s loaded with clean, radio-friendly, arena-rock-ready hits. Shoulder-shimmying banger “Do I Wanna Know?” and slinky “Arabella” take cues from classic rock singed with metal riffs and punctuated by big choruses that leave an earthquake-like resonance. Yet some tracks don’t succeed—“R U Mine?” revs before the engine is ready, and it’s hard not to giggle when Turner croons, “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner / Breathing in your dust” on “I Wanna Be Yours.”
While Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not got by on wry smiles and witty mutterings, AM is upfront and bluntly engages with the listener. AM is all at once a statement of purpose, the band’s initials—making the record the closest thing to a self-titled release to date—and the stale light of morning. Arctic Monkeys’ influence, on British and American music alike, has in large part been measured by the profundity of Alex Turner’s talent for coining phrases. Although always impossible to ignore, on AM Turner’s vocals are the forefront; before they became entwined with a tangle of guitars.
A considerable and surprising isolation sweeps under every track, from the album’s opener, declaring, “Do I wanna know / If this feeling flows both ways?” to the loneliness of the ironic “No. 1 Party Anthem,” which resonates like a tear-soaked 2 a.m. karaoke hit. Seven years after their debut, the Monkeys—soon to sell out arenas, and having already headlined Glastonbury—are still utterly human, privy to the questions everyone grapples with: Is ignorance bliss? Why is romance so fleeting? Does it exist at all?
Although it doesn’t always measure up to its ambitions—Turner himself sang “Anticipation has a habit to set you up / For disappointment”—AM is easily Arctic Monkeys’ most realized record, and one that will further bridge the gaps for a band that began as bards for scruffy street tales. When the sun hits, Arctic Monkeys will be standing there—snarl-less, but smiling with the prospect of what lies ahead.