Take a guess as to what music has influenced the Arctic Monkeys’ “AM.” Maybe this British pub punk guitar band has gone backwards to look at the roots of rock in The Kinks and The Who? Maybe front man Alex Turner is accepting his place as the new John Lennon? Could they be listening to their new peers Mumford & Sons and going folk? Believe it or not, the most prominent musical influence for the sound of “AM” is the Monkeys’ love for…R&B star Aaliyah and the beats of rap super producer Dr. Dre. Calm down, your eyes are not failing you because you did read that last line correctly. In recent interviews, Alex Turner mentioned how he and his crew of mates from Sheffield, England used to mellow out to the smooth sounds of urban hip-hop and R&B in the 90s. The Monkeys have made a stylistic departure before (see 2009’s fuzzy slow burning “Humbug,” produced by Queens Of The Stone Age front man Josh Homme), but this is not the entire focus point of the album. Instead, drummer Matt Helders’ simple drum beats and the light, funky bass and guitar playing of Nick O’Malley and Jamie Cook are merely backgrounds to the songwriting and delivery of lead singer Alex Turner. This album is sonically miles away from the sound of “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor,” the raucous postpunk pile driver that stormed the airwaves 8 years ago.
“AM” is an outstanding album because it is one of those rare albums that captures the feeling of young people in the present time. Every track is a tale of loneliness in a bar at night when you are waiting for love to call or text you back even though it is well past midnight. Take the speaks-for-itself “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” The simple backbeat and plucky guitars give an uncomfortable, low vibe as Turner struggles with the fact that the girl he wanted was leaving when he walked in. He still pines for her (“Now it’s three in the morning/And I’m trying to change your mind/Left you multiple missed calls/And to my message you reply/Why’d you only call me when you’re high”), but he’s not getting anywhere. A song about being under the influence while waiting for love in the cell phone era is immediately relatable to most young people. There is also “Do I Wanna Know?” where Turner is down on his luck after confessing his love, getting turned down, but never being able to get over the girl. It is modern heartbreak that Turner wears with honesty and a bit of swagger. “One For The Road” is Turner falling in to a bad cycle: he follows a girl home from the bar, has a chat, drinks some more, realizes that she is not having him, has one more drink and then leaves. A vicious cycle for sure, but the opportunity of being in between a girl’s sheets is just too good to pass up. It is awkward, honest and somewhat eerie in tone (and having Mr. Homme sing back-up vocals does not hurt either.)
Fans may grimace at the fact that the guitars are turned down here (sans for the super-fuzzed out “R U Mine?” and “I Want It All,”) but it helps to give the songs more ambience than grit. Turner does indeed have resonance with Aaliyah in the sense of sincerity. Aaliyah was a lover not a fighter who just wanted to lay down with you until the sun came up. Turner is not exactly like that, but his sincerity and upfront honesty are very disarming. Proof is in album closer “I Wanna Be Yours,” a mellow fade out jam where Turner repeats the chorus over and over as if he is serenading instead of demanding. But one can only assume he is saying this outside of a girl’s apartment while she looks on from the window in shame at the drunken mess standing outside her door. But as the song fades out, the girl in the window has turned off her lights and Turner knows the night is over. He stumbles home, passes out, wakes up the next morning hung over but unfazed because he is going to do it all again the next night.
The sound of “AM” is something special for it being something in its own time. This is not a band trying desperately to reach for the future or reminiscing about the past, but instead giving a look into a night of young adults socializing in the new media age. While some of the music itself focuses more on a funky groove like that of The Black Keys and Franz Ferdinand, it is the lyrics that stand out. Alex Turner, now 27, is still a young upstart with wit on the tongue, but he does not go for a mean quip as he has on previous Monkeys albums (especially 2011’s “Suck It and See”). He is more upfront and critical not of the women he meets, but how he deals with them. His narrative is what makes “AM” really stand out in your head and makes the record so enjoyable to listen to. This is the sound of a band transitioning into maturity gracefully, and while other bands go for ridiculous bombast or annoying earnest, the Arctic Monkeys remind us that a guitar band can have soul too, even if they are drunk and needy.
Final Verdict: 5 out of 5 stars