Ok…(takes a deep breath)…after much consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘AM’, Artic Monkey’s eagerly anticipated fifth studio album, is (whisper it) a concept album.
It took me a while to reach that conclusion, because it was certainly not the first thing that jumped out at me from the record. That something was the sheer diversity and depth of influences that shape ‘AM’. The band cited Outkast, Dre and Aayliah as influences on the album and Matt Helder’s drumming certainly has a distinct hip-hop flavour; heard most clearly in tracks such as ‘One For the Road’ and ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High’. The vocal breakdown in ‘Knees Up’ carries R n B overtones whilst the guitar riff in ‘Arabella’ is lifted from, as Alex Turner pointed out when interviewed, Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs.’ And of course, there is the undeniable imprint left by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, the man who produced the bands third album ‘Humbug’ and who provides backing vocals on two of the tracks on ‘AM.’
Perhaps it is because of the presence of Homme, added to the fact that the album was recorded entirely in California, and a focus on tight production- characterised by punchy rhythms and almost ever-present backing falsettos; that people have been calling this a ‘West Coast’ album. Musically, ‘AM’ is certainly Hollywood; and the musical elements are the first to grab your attention. But like all good Hollywood films, it also has a story to tell.
Which brings me to the concept. Lyrically, ‘AM’ is an album about infatuation and frustration. The subject of that infatuation may be the friend you’ve always liked, the girl you’ve just met, or perhaps the girl who you’ve just recently split up with. The frustration lies in the uncertainty of whether the feelings you have for her are reciprocal, and the torture of that uncertainty and, eventually, in having left it too late in making your move.
This theme appears from the outset in the single, ‘Do I Wanna Know?’: ‘Ever thought of calling when you’ve had a few?/ Cos I always do’, ‘I’m just constantly on the cusp of trying to kiss you/ I don’t know if you feel the same way as I do’ and continues through second song are ‘R U Mine?’ where Turner wishes the subject of his desire would make her feelings clear.
The concept develops throughout the album- delving into the realms of fantasy in ‘Arabella’:‘she takes a dip in my daydreams’ all the way to ‘Snap Out of It’ and the album’s closer ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, which is a slightly tweaked version of a John Cooper Clarke poem. Whilst ‘AM’ (Arctic Monkeys) as an album title is a nod to the Velvet Underground’s ‘VU’, it is perhaps no coincidence that this title was chosen. Much of Turner’s longing takes place in the ‘wee hours’ of the night, and it is in those hours that he seems most likely to act on his feelings. When he eventually does, he appears to have left it too late, resulting in apparent rejection(real or imagined?) from the object of his desire. Heartwrenching stuff.
The storytelling quality of Alex Turner’s lyrics has always been the Arctic’s greatest asset- and in ‘AM’ this storytelling is complimented by a diverse and multi-faceted soundscape. Indeed, as hinted at before, the album is musically so diverse as to disguise the storytelling aspect on the first few listens you need to delve a little deeper below the sheen of the surface to capture the album’s true quality. But once you do, you are left with something wonderful and momentous- an album which in combining these elements, hints at the band’s potential to one day enter the pantheon of musical legends; and which for my money, is their best since their era-defining debut.