Apparently, December is Music Month here at AHopelessCynic, because that’s really all I’ve been in the mood to discuss lately, and I plan on following this post with a list of my favorite songs of 2013. I would imagine that isn’t a problem for most of you, but if it is,
I don’t give a shit I sincerely apologize. I’ve been wanting to write something about Arctic Monkeys for a long time now (roughly three weeks), and since they just recently released “AM,” widely acknowledged as their best album to date, I figured now would be a good time to do it. So today, we’re going to investigate how Arctic Monkeys have managed to gain mainstream popularity without sacrificing one iota of critical acclaim or the indie cred that got them there in the first place. So take my hand, little one- we’re going on an adventure.
I discovered Arctic Monkeys almost purely by accident; in fact, I can recall with almost astonishing clarity the moment I thought to myself “Well, I know what I’m listening to for the rest of my life.” I was playing Guitar Hero 5 in my apartment in Charlotte, trying to find new, fun songs to play. I had continually scrolled past the Arctic Monkeys’ song “Brianstorm” because I thought it would suck (I’m adventurous like that,) but eventually I had no choice but to give it a shot. And I was blown the fuck away.
On a purely musical level, the song is amazing; the drumming is complex but not overdone, the guitars have just the right amount of distortion, and the bass pulls it all together. At first, I didn’t even listen to what Alex Turner was singing- experience has taught me that most bands who play this well are usually lacking in the lyrics department, so I figured that would be the case here. After all, there had to be a reason why this band wasn’t super-famous, right?
I was wrong. Hopelessly, laughably wrong. AH, THE NAIVETE OF YOUTH. Not only were the lyrics serviceable, they were good. Turner’s lyrics are one of the biggest strengths of a band already overloaded with them, and they’re probably the main reason why Arctic Monkeys have been able to evolve musically without sacrificing quality. On their earlier records, the lyrics were tongue-in-cheek and almost punkish in content, which perfectly mirrored the band’s sound. Take, for example, “From The Ritz to The Rubble “:
The lyrics are somewhat indecipherable on first listen; as drummer Matt Helders describes Turner’s Sheffield accent, “when you talk between songs at a gig and you’re speaking English in our normal accent, it seems a bit strange when you burst into song like you’re from California or summat…it looks a bit daft.” Anyway, Turner essentially criticizes the indie culture, describing a shitty night at a rock club with asshole bouncers and too-cool-for-school hipsters:
Last night there was two bouncers
And one of them’s alright
The other one’s the scary one
His way or no way, totalitarian
He’s got no time for you
Looking or breathing
How he doesn’t want you to
So step out the queue,
He makes examples of you
Instilled in your brain,
You’ve got something to prove
To all the smirking faces and the boys in black
Why can’t they be pleasant?
Why can’t they have a laugh?
He’s criticizing the types of people who buy their albums, but he does it in such a good-natured fashion that he gets away with it. It’s a testament to their winsome qualities as a band, and it’s that affable cynicism that most resonates with me. (Naturally.)
Normally, most bands would be thrilled with the spot that Arctic Monkeys occupied in the mid-to-late 2000s: indie darlings with commercial appeal and critical acclaim. But that wasn’t enough for the band, and 2009’s “Humbug” was an artistic step in a different direction. Produced by Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, the album marked a dramatic departure from their earlier sound. While their first two albums were centered around devil-may-care lyrics and fast, aggressive tunes, “Humbug” showed a darker, more brooding side to the band. The tunes (in particular, Helders’ drumming, which once bordered on the absurd with its complexity and pace), began to take a backseat to Turner’s lyricism. There were still elements of Arctic Monkeys’ older albums present in “Humbug,” but there was a shift in the presentation of those elements:
To be honest, “Humbug” wasn’t my favorite at first- I missed the more lighthearted, whimsical Arctic Monkeys from their earlier albums. But as time progressed, the album grew on me. It was evidence of a band striving to create more meaningful music instead of resting on its laurels and continuing to churn out songs based on a proven formula, and though I was initially reluctant to embrace the shift in content, that shift has been a boon to the band’s long-term vitality. As Arctic Monkeys grow older, so too do their fans. At a certain point, we don’t want to hear about going to rock shows and the self-absorbed folks who populate those places, full of the unwavering arrogance of youth. Sometimes we want to hear about the quiet bars where you think you saw a former flame:
“Cornerstone” is a shining example of Turner’s lyrical eloquence; when he talks about giving a girl a ride home but not wanting to let her go, instead of saying “I took the long way home,” he says “I elongated my lift home.” Now how much better does that sound? The answer is a lot better. A LOT BETTER.
After “Humbug,” Arctic Monkeys released “Suck It And See” in 2011. “Suck It And See” took the menacing swagger of “Humbug” and paired it with the whimsical lyrics found on “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.” A prime example of this was the lead single “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”:
I’m gonna be honest, though- this one is my least favorite album. It lacked the Josh Homme magic, and though Arctic Monkeys were endeavoring on this record to break new ground musically, the result was less cohesive than their past efforts. It almost seemed like the band found themselves at a bit of a crossroads from a creative standpoint, and instead of choosing one direction and forging ahead with confidence, they tried to straddle the line between creative growth and maintaining the status quo set by their earlier work. This is understandable: “Humbug” was their worst-selling album, so it’s possible that they saw the diminished sales numbers as an indication that their fans wanted to hear music that was more similar to their earlier work. Whatever the case, their effort to recalibrate their sound failed, as “Suck It And See” sold the fewest copies of any of their albums.
After the disappointing sales of “Suck It And See,” Arctic Monkeys went back to the studio and redoubled their efforts, releasing “AM” in September of this year. With “AM,” Arctic Monkeys embraced the change of their sound rather than continuing to fight it, and the result is their strongest album to date. The whimsy hasn’t left the lyrics, per se, but it’s slightly more brooding, though not as dark as in “Humbug.” (I suspect Josh Homme had a lot to do with the lyrical content of “Humbug,” though I could be wrong.) The songs on “AM” have a late-night feel to them; it almost seems inappropriate to listen to the album while the sun is out. Take, for example, “Arabella”:
It has an edge to it, but instead of the blunt edge featured on some of the songs from “Humbug,” it’s sharper and more purposeful. Without a doubt, “AM” is their strongest album to date; the same mood permeates every song, without any of the up-and-down of “Favourite Worst Nightmare” (which, despite its inconsistency, is a fantastic album.) It’s not surprising that “AM” has outsold “Suck It And See” and “Humbug” combined in just three months, as well as why it’s been so well-received by critics in addition to fans of the band.
The question now is, can Arctic Monkeys continue to walk the fine line of (relative) commercial success and critical praise without suffering from the common hipster refrain of “Yeah, I liked their first few albums, before they got big”? As long as they continue to push themselves to new heights creatively, they can avoid that fate. And if they can’t? Then, as Turner once challenged us: “Bring on the backlash.”