When British music magazine NME reviewed this year’s Arctic Monkeys album, which is simply called AM, it enthused that this is not only the band’s best record yet, but it “might also be the greatest record of the last decade.” Which is, you know, typical NME. One day the British music press might learn to tone down the hysteria and stop declaring that they’ve discovered a new John Lennon with every year that goes by. Given certain qualifications, however, this particular statement is not as outlandish as it might seem. If you substitute “greatest record of the last decade” with “greatest British record of reasonably conventional rock music of the last decade” (these are, after all, the terms of greatness in which NME usually deals), and you still might not agree, but the claim does seem suddenly reasonable. For make no mistake: AM is a startling, seductive, and unmistakeably excellent record.
I must confess to having been an Arctic Monkeys sceptic ever since their 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which won over half the English-speaking world and is now routinely compared to Definitely Maybe and The Queen is Dead. To me it sounded derivative and awkward (and it still does). But the band have come a long way since then. For their third album, 2009’s Humbug, they recruited Josh Homme as producer and learnt a few things about heavy rock and fuzzy distortion that they have not forgotten. Having begun as a punk band and then taken a meander into deep noise territory (and then a forgettable step backwards with 2011’s Suck it and See), Arctic Monkeys now emerge as masters of both styles. On AM they blend their original sharp, fast punk with a bassline-driven swagger that at times recalls even Led Zeppelin. More importantly, singer and songwriter Alex Turner has now grown up. You won’t find song titles like “Perhaps Vampires is a Bit Strong But …” on AM, and nor does he sound remotely like the obnoxious teenager he sounded like when we first heard his voice seven years ago. Instead he prowls like a tiger through these gritty, muscular songs, sounding sure of his territory even while he draws his dark and finely observed vignettes of insecurity and paranoia.
Menace and eroticism snake through every track on this album. Turner has matured into a writer of catchy yet sinister rock songs, brought to life as much by his cynical, sexy lyrics as by the band’s sure instincts for rhythm and melody. “So we all go back to yours and you sit and talk to me on the floor/There’s no need to show me round, baby I feel like I’ve been here before,” he growls on “One for the Road,” and you can almost see him sitting relaxed yet taut on the floor of some dark and smoky room, his eyes fixed hungrily on the woman to whom he sings. A brooding late-night lust oozes out of every song. The title of “R U Mine?” could serve as a synopsis of the album. The cover art is perfect: stark white on black mirroring the music’s emotional extremity; a radio wave pulsing along with those basslines; and yes, it also looks like a bra.
AM has better tunes than anything else to come out of the British rock scene in a long time. Opener “Do I Wanna Know?” rides a guitar riff worthy of the greats. Add that to such stellar numbers as “Snap Out of It” and “I Want it All,” and it’s hard not to feel that Franz Ferdinand’s famous manifesto – that they would always make music that girls could dance to – might now be better applied to these guys. Besides a pair of very ordinary ballads in the middle, this is one of those records that you can listen to on repeat for ages without there being any tracks that you want to skip. It’s not only Arctic Monkeys’ best album: it genuinely is one of the finest rock records of the last few years (even if it’s not quite decade-topping material). Arctic Monkeys have been called one of the best bands of their generation for the whole of their career. With AM, at last, they finally – almost – deserve it.