Five albums deep into a career spanning approximately eleven years, it should come as no surprise that the Arctic Monkeys’ sound has changed as markedly as their lives have. Each record provides a telltale account of the Sheffield quartet’s whereabouts, personally and artistically – a formula that has worked superbly until now. By no means is AM a bad album, but it craves the honesty and meaningful raison d’être that characterised the previous works. Each album smacked of crystal clear purpose justified by the end product. Now, upon breaching the threshold of superstardom, the Monkeys have attempted to manifest their recently cemented rockstar image in a mix of people-pleasing radio boppers and unadventurous numbers that call out to the band’s previous work but fall short in comparison.
The first single off the fifth studio-offering, ‘R U Mine’, held great promise. The music video, an abrasive black and white handheld recording, depicted Monkeys’ B1 and B2, Alex Turner and Matt Helders, don dark sunglasses, slick their hair back and do little other than drive around looking obnoxiously cool for three minutes. Not only was it a solid, harder-hitting and wickedly catchy song, but it hinted that the Sheffield natives had maintained their sense of humour and would not take the notion of ‘21st century rockstar’ too seriously. Moreover, it eased concerns that the Monkeys would be moving away from traditional rock roots to cater to an expanding modern fanbase. Follow-up singles ‘Do I Wanna Know’ and ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High’, however, suggested something completely different.
There is something incongruous about the Arctic Monkeys being a stadium-packing megaband. Debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not propelled the adolescents to fame and a Mercury Prize. Unlike minimalist compatriots, The xx, whose meticulously curated sound had been perfected for years before being unleashed upon the world, the Arctic Monkeys could not reasonably have foreseen that their chaotic account of teenage lived-experience, riding the wave of post-2000 garage-rock revivalism, would achieve such widespread acclaim. Even their name doesn’t lend itself to the prospect of superstardom; the band themselves have admitted the moniker was originally intended to be temporary, but stuck in the end. One can’t help but think that even the Arctic Monkeys themselves never intended to occupy the niche they currently do – as a band for the masses.
But skip forward ten years and, interestingly, this observation is starkly juxtaposed by the Arctic Monkeys that headlined Glastonbury a few months ago. In arguably their greatest live performance to date, a blazer-clad, hair-slicked-back Alex Turner did something very strange: He pretended to be Elvis. Or perhaps he thought he was Elvis. Either way, it was clear that the NME poster-boy had adopted a rockstar stage persona that commanded the sea of fans with the gravitas of the King himself; the likes of which had begun to surface around the release of Humbug and become more apparent with the success of Suck It And See. It was an understandable response to having had to come of age under the scrutiny of the British press. Turner, the darling of the UK hype-machine, had quite clearly rebelled with his image and gone the opposite way of what was expected. And indeed, the audience were captivated by his every word, roaring in affirmation when he growled, “ARE YOU MINE, GLASTONBURY?”.
The themes on AM are intended to be more palatable to a wider audience and therefore pick up where Suck It And See left off. Narratives about shitty Yorkshire pubs and automobiled bullies have paved way to relatable and grandiose gestures of love and lust. And whilst Turner’s lyrical prowess hardly falters on AM, the unit struggles to convey the new rockstar image through the music, despite their best Bauhaus impressions on ‘I Want It All’ and shout-outs to the Stooges on ‘I Wanna Be Yours’.
An artist like Drake finds himself in the fortunate position of being able to appeal to legions of fans without having to misrepresent himself artistically. It is indeed difficult to believe that this is true of the Monkeys when two of the most distinctly Arctic Monkeys songs – which should serve as guaranteed home-runs – ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’ and ‘Mad Sounds’, sound like the less inspired younger siblings of ‘Piledriver Waltz’ and ‘The Hellcat Spangled Shalala’.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the band seems to be at their best on AM when accepting where they are in their careers, and understanding who is listening: fans reared on mainstream music that have recently diverted their attention to the likes of Bon Iver, Mumford & Sons and Two-Door Cinema Club – and perhaps even Drake. It’s a shame that tightly constructed b-side ‘Stop The World, I Wanna Get Off With You’ was omitted from the album. Lyrically, it presents the same easy-to-relate sentiments and has a head-bob inducing tune, but as with both ‘Do I Wanna Know’ and ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High’, it’s a manifestation of the Monkeys embracing their success and rightfully wallowing in it. It’s hard to imagine that ‘Stop The World’ wouldn’t have been better placed on AM than, for example, the decidedly average ‘Fireside’.
Honesty has always held the Monkeys in good stead. And considering that nobody has a clue of what a ‘rockstar’ in the 21st century is supposed to be, it’s difficult to criticise the Monkeys for the discord between their new image and their strongest content on AM. Conversely, the weaker, unconvincing songs on the record betray the honesty to which we have become accustomed. The fact that they act to the album’s detriment is palpable. Early fans hoping that the Monkey’s career would culminate in their being remembered as stalwarts of modern rock n’ roll might have to accept that their band’s legacy may just be revered on a distinctly different, larger scale.