Sunday, September 8, 2013

album review: 'a.m.' by the arctic monkeys

Everybody has specific 'sounds' that they don't like. Nails on a chalkboard, the rasp of metal against rocks, the chipmunk voice effect, basically some sound that just sets your teeth on edge and just leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth. It's not often something you can help either, it's a gut instinct, it's a subconscious emotional reaction to something in the sound that just makes you feel queasy or just triggers that element of dispassionate loathing. And as a music critic, this impulse is absolutely infuriating, because it often prevents me from being as objective as I'd like when evaluating the material. It basically prevents me from doing my job effectively, and given how hard I've strove to be professional, it really bothers me.

And if we're going to talk about a band that leaps to the top of that list in my mind, the Arctic Monkeys would be that band. 

I know it's crazy. I can't explain it, no matter how hard I've tried. Something about this band, whether it's lead singer Alex Turner's vocals or songwriting, just gets on my nerves in ways I really can't comprehend. I'm going to try and intellectualize this instinctive reaction in some way, see if I can parse some of it out, because the more calculating and rational parts of my mind are telling me that I should like the Arctic Monkeys. The guitar work is catchy and interesting (for the most part), they're good songwriters, and hell, Alex Turner isn't that far from Billy Joe Armstrong in his vocal delivery, so where's this antipathy coming from? What is it about this band that alienates me so much?

Well, if I were to hazard a guess, I'm thinking some of it comes from two factors, neither of which are all that fair to the Arctic Monkeys, at least in terms of judging their execution. The first is in the subject matter and the delivery - Alex Turner comes across as acerbic and bitter and sour in both the songwriting and the delivery right out of the gate, starting on that first album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. And what strikes me as out-of-place is that the target of said anger seems to be the activity of going out and partying and having a good time. And sure, I get where said subject matter could easily be reinterpreted with a dark or sarcastic twist, but Alex Turner seems like the douchebag who stands morosely at the bar after you drag him out and then spends the rest of the night complaining, arguing with the bouncer, being a creep with girls, and blaming it all on you at the end of the night. It'd be like dragging Morissey and Severus Snape to a nightclub. And sure, I'll give props to the Arctic Monkeys for executing that sort of song so well, but that sure as hell doesn't make it remotely pleasant.

And here's the other unfortunate and probably unfair thing: it's really, really hard for me not to compare the Arctic Monkeys with Franz Ferdinand. Maybe it's the similar guitar work and strong technical songwriting that the two acts share, but every time I listen to the Arctic Monkeys and their acrid brand of unpleasantness, I can't help but think that those dudes over in Franz Ferdinand just sound like they bring a much better party. I get that there's a place for bitterness in music and arguably the Arctic Monkeys execute their morose emotions better than most, but it sure as hell isn't an enjoyable or moving experience in the slightest.

One of the other interesting factors with the Arctic Monkeys is that the band has followed something of a similar career trajectory to Franz Ferdinand, starting with two strong, critically-acclaimed albums right out of the gate (the second being strongest in my opinion), before attempting to switch things up a bit for their third album. For the Arctic Monkeys on Humbug, they slowed things down and attempted to make their instrumentation sound a bit more grandiose - but at the same time, many of the lyrics that went by too quickly to fully sink in on previous albums now had plenty of room to breathe and reveal the unpleasant truth: the narrator Alex Turner writes is an asshole. Maybe it has something to do with the pseudo-not-trying delivery or the fact that every single one of the songs are full of needling little insults, but it really reveals a whole new layer of ugly unpleasantness reminiscent of Ethan Hawke's character in Reality Bites: the snide jackass who is so smart he has chosen to only interact with the world via smug observations. And what's really grating is that more often than not, we're supposed to sympathize or at least identify with the narrator because a lot of his observations - crass as they might be - are at least intelligent, and we're supposed to shove to the back of our mind the fact that he's really quite the asshole, which is framing I find hard to accept. 

Now all of that being said, I do think the lyrics improved a bit on the next album, Suck It And See, mostly because the poetry got a little more benign and, dare I say it, mature. Some of the snide petulance had faded from Alex Turner's delivery (not all of it, mind you), and with the songwriting as sharp as ever, he grew marginally more tolerable and the album was significantly less unpleasant for me to listen through. But at the same time, I kind of missed the high-energy instrumentation from those first two albums, and while I still think the Arctic Monkeys wouldn't quite be my thing if they had returned to that instrumentation (while keeping the better tone and lyrics), I do think it would have incorporated the best of both worlds. As I said, I can recognize talent and solid work when I see it, and while there are issues with the Arctic Monkeys that still get on my nerves and prevent me from liking them, I know that some of these issues are my issues, and what is key is separating my issues with legitimate grievances.

So with that hefty challenge in mind, what do I think of the newest Arctic Monkeys album, A.M.?

Oh boy... well, I can say this, I definitely was not expecting this, and given I have something of a tempestuous relationship with this band, I wasn't expecting to come to the conclusion I did: A.M. by the Arctic Monkeys is a decent enough album, but I bet fans of the band are going to hate it, particularly if you're a fan of their earlier material.

I should explain, and the best place to start is with the instrumentation. On this album, you get two very divergent styles of instrumentation: a stripped-down and hollow slow burn for about half of the album, with little in terms of breakdowns or wild instrumental forays that occasionally spiced up their earlier work; and then the rest of the album is this fuzz-saturated, generally placid and agreeable indie rock that might just be the softest material the Arctic Monkeys have ever made. It's definitely a jarring shift from track to track, and it also leads to a major disparity in quality across the board. The fact is that even though the Arctic Monkeys have slowed down and simplified their riffs significantly on this album (at least in comparison with their first two albums), the songs leaning towards darker emotions are just a better fit for the rougher instrumentation of the band. The more frustrated melodies are still catchy and are significantly stronger, if only because they're more memorable and rely more heavily on the riffs to carry them. But then again, the Arctic Monkeys have never had a problem in this regard - when they want to, they can write catchy, memorable songs.

It becomes an issue, though, on the slower tracks, which lack these hooks or indeed much driving momentum at all. I can appreciate something of the homage to the late 60s psychedelia that I'm guessing Alex Turner was going for here, but instead, it starts sounding more than a little like Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. I really hate saying this, but Alex Turner is smarter than this particular material makes him out to be, and really, none of the songs are memorable enough in this vein to even be worth hating. Once again, I get the homage, but say what you will about Edward Sharpe, he at least throws himself into the tracks with reckless abandon and seems dedicated to it.

This comes back to a problem with Alex Turner's delivery, where I think in the course of writing this review, I managed to mostly identify my issue with it: detachment. Alex Turner rarely sounds as if he's engaged in the song he's singing, to the point where several times I wondered if he was even trying (which is always a way to get on my nerves). As I've said before, if you're not emotionally invested in your own material, why the hell should I care? But the bigger problem comes through in the fact that without the investment, so many of the songs feel either snide, sarcastic, or completely insincere - and while I'm sure all three elements have existed in the Arctic Monkeys' discography through their careers, it's a really bad fit for this album. I have no idea what level of irony this album operates on, if any at all, which makes any sort of emotional resonance I might get from it distinctly confused and underwhelming.

But what's an even worse fit for this album is the sudden appearance of falsetto, just like on Comedown Machine from The Strokes earlier this year. Now I'll give Alex Turner this, his falsetto is better than Julian Casablancas', but I get even less emotive delivery from this vocal range and to me, it sounds very discordant with the Arctic Monkeys' harder instrumentation. It might fit a bit better on the more psychedelic tracks, but it still isn't very good and it really adds nothing to the atmosphere of the tracks other than another layer to grate on my nerves.

And now we have to talk about the thing that is sure to make Arctic Monkeys fans scream bloody murder: the songwriting. I said earlier in this review that one of the elements about early Arctic Monkeys that left a sour taste in my mouth was the acrid, very bitter songwriting that seemed to regard everything with contempt, and when I said that I was in favour of them toning that back, I meant keeping the fire while maybe adding morally ambiguous framing or additional context in the lyrics that would justify the venom. That certainly seemed to be the direction they were taking on Suck It And See, by pulling away from the petulance and replacing it with maturity (which, if taken in the right direction, can be just as dark and compelling).

But with A.M., the Arctic Monkeys seem to have jettisoned all of the vitriol entirely, replacing it with curdled frustration and some seriously besotted lyrics, particularly on the slower tracks. The harder songs deal with topics like uncertain relationships, and the frustration is a natural fit , but songs like 'No. 1 Party Anthem' and 'I Wanna Be Yours' and 'Mad Sounds' sound so clumsy and utterly infatuated that I started wondering what the hell happened to Alex Turner. It also doesn't help matters that the technical songwriting takes a noticeable dive on the slower tracks, lacking some of the sharp wit that made the Arctic Monkeys stand out, so much to the point that I was wondering whether or not they were performing the songs ironically - but with Alex Turner's half-engaged delivery, it's impossible to tell. But even the songs that are harsher and more frustrated don't quite seem to be as sharply written as the albums that came before. Sure, songs like 'Arabella' might paint an interesting picture of a girl with some good poetry, but the track feels so much more basic than the Arctic Monkeys are capable. Despite the issues that I've had with this band, the one thing I've been consistently able to count upon is songwriting that is at least marginally challenging - and with this album, I've very much underwhelmed. 

And here's the part that kind of depresses me - I get the feeling that the simplification was intentional, keeping a lot of the technical wordplay (well, some of the time) while making the concepts behind the songs a little more radio-friendly and accessible. Hell, I wouldn't have much of a problem seeing songs from this album chart on the radio, at least on the alternative charts. But here's my problem: when Tegan & Sara released Heartthrob earlier this year, I thought the album was a good natural fit for their songwriting (which had a distinctive pop edge to it, even if their instrumentation didn't always match it). But with the Arctic Monkeys, I feel like the instrumentation and songwriting have been simplified to court the mainstream when it's not necessary. In a comparison, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were criticized for opting for a slow-burn album with The Good Son after the gothic excess of Tender Prey, but Nick Cave made sure that even when he slowed and simplified the instrumentation, he kept his characteristic lyrics as intelligent and layered as they've always been. I have no problem with the Arctic Monkeys simplifying their musical style in order to court a larger audience - as long as they keep it catchy, which they do - but their songwriting needs to grow and mature, not devolve into the frustrated romantic ramblings of a college student - articulate, but lacking true emotional impact.

...look, I don't think I'm ever going to find the Arctic Monkeys my thing. It still bewilders me why they work for me, but it's something I've come to accept. With that in mind, I still can recommend a few of the tracks on this album, like 'Do I Wanna Know?' and 'Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?' and 'Snap Out Of It' and maybe 'Knee Socks' (it's really catchy), but most of this album was a disappointment, and I'm not even a fan of this band. To me, it's an artistic step in a direction that can work instrumentally, but doesn't work on a songwriting level, and Alex Turner's seeming lack of investment does little to endear me. If you're a fan of the Arctic Monkeys, I honestly have no idea how you're going to react to this album - again, I suspect some of you are going to hate it. 

But that being said, even though it's not my thing, it's definitely not bad and probably is worth a look. If this review for some reason made you intrigued enough to take a look, go check out A.M. by the Arctic Monkeys. I'll say this as someone who knows - you could definitely be listening to worse.

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