Sound — 8
Released two years after their last record, 2011's "Suck It and See," Arctic Monkeys return with "AM." Opening with the glam stomp and massive choruses of first single "Do I Wanna Know?," the Monkeys announce their return in grand fashion. The hand claps, falsetto backing vocals, and pounding riffs set the tone for the first half of the album. Released last year as a stand alone single, the frantic "R You Mine?" finds a new home as the second track on "AM." Containing breakneck drumming, falsetto call-and-response vocals from Alex Turner and drummer Matt Helders, and a strutting swagger, "R you Mine?" clearly provided the band with the sonic blueprint going into record their fifth album. "One for the Road" continues in a similar fashion, while adding in the first hints of R&B and hip-hop influences on the album. Matt Helders adds doo-wop "ooh-oohs" as a foundation for ambient guitar and rumbling rhythm section. Fourth track "Arabella" shows that touring with The Black Keys has rubbed off a little on the Monkeys. The track is all aggressive riffs and confident swagger in the chorus, tempered by pulsing drums & bass, and plucked, reverb drenched guitar in the verses, and is a true highlight. The heavily T-Rex influenced "I Want It All" is the first true dud of the album, with its squealing guitars and sugary keyboards never really gathering any steam, and sounding more like a failed experiment, ending the first half of the album on somewhat of a let down. Thankfully, the second, more introspective and gentle, half of the album is almost exclusively prime Monkeys. Beginning with the John Lennon-piano pop of "No. 1 Party Anthem," the middle third of the album is made up of three back-to-back ballads, which creates a very solid centerpiece for the record. The true showstopper is the 7th track, "Mad Sounds." More than a little indebted to The Velvet Underground, the heroin-soul track sounds like a lost cut from the Velvet's self-titled masterpiece, with it's crystalline guitars, church organ, and melodic bass lines. The missed opportunity for a Lou Reed guest vocal is unforgivable. Track eight, "Fireside," invokes "Achtung Baby" era U2, with Matt Helders propulsive, almost tribal drumming, and Jamie Cook's delay-heavy, Edge-style guitar elevating the song to heights that it might not have reached with lesser musicians. The final third of the album begins with new single, "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?" All slick hip hop beats and basslines, the song is the Monkey's take on modern R&B, which they do impressively well, layering the song with more Matt Helder's falsetto basking vocals, soulful guitar, and a hook in the chorus that ensures that this song will be played heavily on radio for years to come. Following is the much less successful "Snap Out of It," which is the album's second true dud. While it contains a catchy hook in the chorus, the track ends up meandering without ever catching fire, leading to the least essential track on the album. Thankfully, the penultimate track, "Knee Socks," brings the quality of the recording soaring back towards the sky. Possibly the most experimental song on the album, it contains a strutting disco beat and enough sexuality to make Roxy Music proud. In fact, the spirit of Bryan Ferry hangs strongly over this track. The acapella vocal outro brings to mind the Roxy classic "Mother of Pearl." And, as is the law of rock n' roll, Josh Homme's presence on the track elevates it to true transcendence. A future Monkeys' classic, and the albums biggest experimental success. The final track on the album, "I Wanna Be Yours," bring the tone of the album back down. The track's dense atmosphere could be cut with a knife, built upon a soulful rhythm section, thick strings, and layered vocals, ending things on a much heavier and personal note.
Lyrics — 9
Lyrically, Alex Turner has been universally praised for his story telling prowess, dry wit, and ability to create brilliant turns of phrase. This album is no different. Beginning with their third album, "Humbug," Turner also began adding in vague, poetic symbolism, which has made many of the song's lyrics near indecipherable. Thankfully, this hasn't detracted from the quality of the music or lyrics. The lyrics on "AM" have a dark, sensual current running through them, which gives the album a sexual weight. "Do I Wanna Know?" and "R You Mine?" absolutely burn with longing and sexual tension, while the more personal songs "No. 1 Party Anthem," "Mad Sounds," "Fireside," and "I Wanna Be Yours" are tales of indecision about commitment, lost love, and loneliness. The more uptempo songs, "One for the Road, "Arabella," "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?," and "Knee Socks" are tales of sexual conquest, whether it be breakup sex, trying and failing to initiate a one night stand, or detailing the act itself. Of course, all of these subjects are well worn terrain for rock and roll, but Turner is able to revive them by injecting them with his signature sensibilities and intelligence. Vocally, Turner has only gotten better with age. While he screeched and wailed his way through their debut album, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, and a sense of complete ironic detachment as he narrated tales of sex, late night clubbing, and young love, Turner has matured into quite a sincere crooner. Because the album's lyrics are more sincere and personal, he is able to compliment them with a deeper range and delivery. The new secret weapon of the band would have to be Matt Helder's falsetto harmonies and backing vocals, which help give the songs weight and density, and well as being quite a potent counterpoint to Turner's croon.
Overall Impression — 8
While this is certainly not Arctic Monkeys' best album, and does contain more duds than their past releases, it doesn't detract from the fact that this is a solid release. Five albums in, the band is still expanding its sound and experimenting by pushing the limits of their music. By incorporating elements of varied genres such as R&B, hip hop, glam, and soul, the band finds new variations on what could have very easily turned into a formula. After the modern classic that is their first album, it would have been perfectly acceptable for them to release five albums worth of variations on "I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor" and "When the Sun Goes Down." Thankfully, the band has decided to challenge themselves, and continue moving forward and evolving. Thankfully, the successes of the album do greatly outnumber the failures. And unlike many bands that would simply absorb and regurgitate influences and genres, while coming off as contrived and pretentious, the Arctic Monkeys are far too talented as musicians and songwriters to allow that to happen. The incorporation of different influences and genres comes off as natural and logical progressions for the band. Like all of the Arctic Monkeys past albums, all of the songs are extremely listenable, with a large number of them being instant classics. Also, the fact that an album this good and with this many great songs can be considered a second tier album by this band is just a testament to the high quality of material that they have created their back catalog with.