Millennial Masterpieces #6: Arctic Monkeys – [AM]

Welcome to Millennial Masterpieces, where I’ll look back at a great album released within the past 17 years and see what its legacy is. Sixth in the series is the Arctic Monkey‘s stunning and massively influential AM.

Released: September 9, 2013

Although they managed to retain some modicum of credibility with the elite crowd, and never “sold out” in a way that many of their peers did, commercially speaking Arctic Monkeys were sort of a one-hit wonder. “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” was their one big single and other than that they had mostly a cult following; now it’s hard to imagine them playing a venue other than a festival stage or arena.

After the initial success they found in 2006 they released a bunch of pleasant records that didn’t really go anywhere, and radio singles weren’t even considered to be on the table anymore. Their 2009 album…I don’t even remember the name, but it came and went without a second glance.

In 2012 however there came a one-off song called “R U Mine?”, and although it didn’t officially hit airwaves until a few years later, it was the herald of a great new era. The big, obvious riff was something previously unheard in the band’s work, and then suddenly in 2013 AM was released and there were a lot of big obvious riffs and they were really great.

The smoky, neo-noir soul aesthetic had blipped onto the mainstream a few times in the previous few years but it was Arctic Monkeys that really popularized it. It’s easy to hear why everyone would want a piece of this- the formula makes for some instantly memorable hooks. The menacing minimalist strut and brash hooks came out of the blue (blues?) and turned the one time indie ragamuffins into sleek, distinguished superstars.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There were always hints that the band had an inclination towards this sound, as they’d covered artists like Amy Winehouse and Van McCoy in the past. But it seemed like the 1950s/60s influences had seeped entirely into frontman Alex Turner‘s side project The Last Shadow Puppets, where they were substantially less powerful. There’s a muscular backbone to AM that sets it miles apart from that band, a louche confidence smeared across the record. It’s direct in everything from its name to its artwork to its hooks.

That’s the most striking thing about this record- how frequent and insistent the hooks are. There’s an ease to them that other bands would kill for. It’s as if Turner one day snapped his fingers and said “Alright boys, let’s pump out some hits!” He then traded in his t-shirt and jeans for a suit and became the Don Draper of indie rock. He sings “Do I wanna know?” but he seems to already know the answer, and it’s in his favour. Same goes for “R U Mine?”. They’re all rhetorical questions Turner is asking for his own amusement, and he’s backed with riffs for days.

Even the simplest of melodies are accentuated with minor touches that give them an edge. The deceptively straightforward bass line in “Why’d You Only Call Me When Your High?” is adorned with twangy surf guitar and swooping string sections. “Arabella” has a blunt progression that recalls the band’s brawny 2011 singles, but dressed in brand new threads. “Knee Socks” takes a Franz Ferdinand-like opening and transforms it into lounge soul. Suddenly towards the end of it another familiar voice floats in from the shadows- Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme appears and the album’s direction becomes a little more understandable.

Style might be one thing, but the reason AM did as well as it did was because it was crammed full of memorable hooks that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. It was an unexpected game changer, and sometimes game changers arise from the most unlikely places. A scrappy garage/mod band with one moderate radio hit who effectively vanished for over half a decade before coming back revolutionizing the sound of modern music? It happened, and we’re all the better for it.

Top Three Tracks: “R U Mine?”, “Do I Wanna Know?“, “Knee Socks

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