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Arctic Monkeys’ ‘AM’ Switches From Fidgety Rock to Aaliyah Fandom and Funky Grooves

Arctic Monkeys at Glastonbury 2013 / Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Label: Domino

Early exposure to the fifth Arctic Monkeys record might betray a few symptoms of Pretentious Artiste Syndrome — frontman Alex Turner has name-checked Dr. Dre and Aaliyah in the run-up to AM, boasting that the U.K.-spawned, now California-based quartet has injected elements of hip-hop and R&B into its malleable guitar rock. But thankfully, the result is far from crude carpetbagging. Truth is, Turner has always been eclectic, spilling torrents of syllable-crammed lyrics over sharp melody lines like an MC with a buzzing head full of ideas; hell, his side project, Last Shadow Puppets, even delivered a credible cover of Rihanna’s “SOS” back in 2008.

Still, play the group’s breakout 2006 single, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” back-to-back with AM‘s “Do I Wanna Know?” or “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and the contrast is jarring. The fidgety rock dudes of seven (!) years ago — initially, clear successors to Pete Doherty’s shambolic, trebly, high-energy Libertines — now prefer slow, funky grooves that push the low end with sure-handed authority. Drummer Matt Helders and bassist Nick O’Malley also contribute surprisingly effective (i.e., not ridiculous-sounding) falsetto backing vocals, evoking R&B girl groups and softening the edges of Turner’s ever-sardonic crooning.

A little classic rock also sneaks into this entertaining, intriguing hodgepodge. “Mad Sounds” echoes Lou Reed and Van Morrison in their gentler moments, while the melancholy ballad “No. 1 Party Anthem” finds Turner in full John Lennon mode, perhaps inspired by the Monkeys’ 2012 Olympics cover of “Come Together.” The dreamy “I Wanna Be Yours” even swipes a few witty couplets from beloved “punk poet” John Cooper-Clarke: “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner / Breathing in your dust,” and so forth.

Blessedly, none of this feels the least bit desperate — the band is too self-aware for that — though AM does suggest uncertainty, and the ongoing search for a new stylistic path. Regardless, Turner’s eloquent tales of existential disappointment and romantic frustration remain a constant, off-loading angst in no uncertain terms, from the abandoned-lover lament “I Want It All” to the inept come-on “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” Even the sleazy memory of “knocking boots” on “Knee Socks” devolves into fretting over a failed relationship. This is a transitional record, it’s true: Turner’s keen lyrical skills have outpaced the band’s musical development, and the ultimate role of guitars (which aren’t crucial here) has yet to be determined. But if you want expertly creeping unease, dive in.