Album Review: “AM” by Arctic Monkeys (as examined by a writer)

Arctic-Monkeys-AM

I usually stick to film critiques, but there was just something about Arctic Monkey’s newest release, AM, that made me want to voyage into the world of music reviews. If that doesn’t sell the album high already, I don’t know what does.

Except a 10-out-of-10 rating from NME (the first magazine to give The Beatles a good review). According to them: “Arctic Monkeys’ fifth record is absolutely and unarguably the most incredible album of their career. It might also be the greatest record of the last decade.”

Ready to listen on Spotify yet?

A little context: I first started listening to Arctic Monkeys in 2006 after I found them through — yes, I admit it — some fan site that said Daniel Radcliffe listened to them. I had already downloaded the not-really-a-wizard’s iTunes celebrity playlist (as well as Rupert Grint’s), but I wanted more. Maybe I thought it would be good conversation fodder for when I ran into him at a London cafe or something. Who knows what was going on through 14-year-old Kate’s brain?

December, Harry and Ron
Whatever it was, it was accompanied by thoughts like “I love pasty, shaggy-haired English actors.”

Anyway, I got hooked immediately on “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” but found myself lost in other tracks on their Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Something that separated them from the other music I was listening to at the time — a mix of female-led goth rock, Green Day, Panic! At The Disco, groups with “American” in the name (All-American Rejects, American Hi-Fi) and Michael Bublè — was its raw…Britishness. For example, “A Certain Romance” stabbed at U.S. mass-culture in the same way I had throughout the Bush era: “Cause over there there’s broken bones / There’s only music, so that there’s new ringtones.” There was also a listener hooked by her ears.

So now onto the actual review for AM:

There are two kinds of “good music” to a writer: the kind that inspires stories and the kind that inspires words. Hans Zimmer’s Lone Ranger soundtrack is the most recent example of something that helps create stories for me, but that’s easy: give me a driving movie score and a pen, and I’ll write you an epic plot. But music that makes wording and description pop into my head? That’s tougher, mostly because fantastic lyrics are hard to find these days.*

*Note my earlier reference to “A Certain Romance.”

That’s what makes AM a spectacular album. Any other review will talk about how the group’s use of backup vocals is a retro touch to a new-age alternative album that capitalizes on lead man Alex Turner’s lazy-but-strong voice. It would mention how the guitar is driving in some tracks, such as “R U Mine?” and simplistic in others such as “Arabella.” It could also talk about how there’s diversity — which was missing off their third album, Humbug — because one song can be a “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” throwback, the next emulate “Only Ones Who Know” and the last something they’ve never done before.

But I’m not going any further on the musical quality of Arctic Monkeys’ fifth album. What I want to talk about is the words. Turner’s lyrics stand alone in a world where a hit song’s lyrics can literally be: “I live for the applause, applause, applause / I live for the applause-plause / I live for the applause-plause.”

Story songs aren’t new to Arctic Monkeys. “Fluorescent Adolescent” on Favourite Worst Nightmare aptly told the story of an aged swinger. AM pays homage to their plot-driven lyrics, “No. 1 Party Anthem” describing a night at a bar. Boom: a novelist’s got the background track to the next bar scene in his or her book.

The actual phrasing in each song is also a rare gem in a world of “shawties” and “ooh baby babies.” In “Arabella” alone, there are so many pieces that make creative fingers itch to write: “She’s got a barbarella silver swimsuit / And when she needs a shelter from reality / She takes a dip in my daydreams.” Be cautioned that Turner could possibly make listeners angry that they didn’t think of it first.

(Now I’m going to break the “third-person review” rule and talk about AM on a personal level.)

What makes the words so influential to me as a writer is how the situations and pining in many of the songs can connect to stories cooped up inside my head or happening right in my own life. The first song on the album (and the first single dropped before its release) is “Do I Wanna Know?” which details how it feels to want someone but scared they don’t feel the same way. I’m sure none of us have been there before. Another prime example is “Snap Out of It,” which begs a want-to-be-more-than-friends-friend (perhaps the one from “Do I Wanna Know?”) to “snap out of” a relationship and offers that “If that watch don’t continue to swing / or the fat lady fancies having a sing / I’ll be here waiting ever so patiently.” It’s simple, but real.

And that’s a way to describe a lot of AM. The band keeps true to its alternative rock roots and provides listeners with a balanced album that isn’t flashy or over-produced. Even the album art is minimal. But what it holds inside is more significant than any other recent release, especially for writers looking for their next stimulus.

Download: The whole thing. But if you’re on a budget, the best include “Do I Wanna Know?” “R U Mine?” “Snap Out Of It” and “Knee Socks.”

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