FOR ALL THE advance wow about the Rolling Stones, post-match consensus declared the Arctic Monkeys the star turn of this year’s Glastonbury Festival. The Sheffield quartet were practically unrecognisable from the startled kids who had frozen on the same stage seven years earlier. Indicative of their rock hard self-belief was the decision to open with ‘Do I Wanna Know?’, a brand new song unfamiliar to most people present: a creepy, clanging, downtempo account of erotic obsession. It was either a calculated show of strength or a dare. The band knew exactly what they were doing.
The fifth Arctic Monkeys album begins with the same song that so stunned Glastonbury. The studio version of ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ is close to that live treatment – testimony to the players’ acute proficiency; a quality the Monkeys deserve more plaudits for – but magnifies its intense oddness. The final third reveals Alex Turner amidst a downward vortex of confusion, assailed by falsetto counterpoint vocals and a dense guitar mist, on his knees but reaching out to his object of doomed desire: “Do you want me crawling back to you?”
Superficially, ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ harks back to the spectral psych-rock the Monkeys essayed so successfully on Humbug, their rite-of-passage third album, co-produced by Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, which marked a decisive shift from the parochial scenarios that dominated its predecessors. There are, however key differences: the heavily processed punch of Matt Helders’ drums and some extravagant vocal layering. The latter is overwhelmingly apparent in the ensuing ‘R U Mine?’, the same lustful Jimmy Page-turner they released in spring 2012 to purge the palate following 2011’s accomplished yet somewhat conventional Suck It And See.
Ever since ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ blew him to instant stardom at 19, it was clear that Alex Turner had a gift for prosody: not only did he love language as a vehicle for telling tales, he could tease words across the conventional grain of melody and rhythm with gymnastic flair that belied his ostensible role as singer in an indie rock band and instead had more kinship with hip hop. So to hear Turner now tongue-twist his way through a clutch of rocked up R&B grooves doesn’t seem ridiculous. One For The Road pits helium “hoo-hoo”s and pizzicato string-picking astride a loping bassline and the sort of sparse beatscape that inevitably evokes drop-top Caddy rides very far from South Yorkshire. The siren choir sound female but are in fact Matt Helders and bassist Nick O’Malley, plus Turner himself, and on One For The Road, Josh Homme.
It’s sublime, but a mere taster for ‘Arabella’: over sweltering guitar and subsonic bass fit to rumble the San Andreas Fault, Turner gives an eye-watering vision of the titular she-wolf: “She’s got a Barbarella silver swimsuit/And when she needs a shelter from reality she takes a dip in my daydream.” Whereupon Jamie Cook splashes into the pool riffing on Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’. The song’s middle-eight – essentially Destiny’s Child meets ZZ Top – is an exorbitantly hysteric peak on a record not lacking in razzle-dazzle: the libidinous vocal hotstep between Turner and the ‘girls’ is breath-taking, until his heroine “takes a sip of your soul and it sounds like…”… cue Cook channelling his finest Billy Gibbons solo. Later, the blueprint is reprised with the patented Dr Dre chirrups of ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’, where Turner’s bewitched bewilderment at another femme fatale leads him, “Somewhere darker, talking the same shite.”
The sultry ambience pervades even the songs which eschew the Cali template. The motorik glam-slamming ‘I Want It All’ posits QOTSA renovating ‘Metal Guru’, Turner offering “my sweet rigmarole” a bittersweet adieu: “Ain’t it just like you to kiss me and then hit the road.” The singer’s use of falsetto keeps his narrative perspective ambiguous; he could just as easily be the one doing the loving and leaving. Or indeed, he might not be there at all: his presence on ‘No.1 Party Anthem’, the closest thing to an old model Monkeys lachrymose ballad, feels more like a observer, imbibing the unzipped scenes – “The good times girls/The cubicles/The house of fun” – as moods peak and trough into the ensuing ‘Mad Sounds’, a stoned refraction of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, where “Love buckles under the strain of those wild nights.”
Regardless of his stance, Turner’s eye for detail imbues these sorehead vignettes with the breath of reportage. You can feel his eyes popping amid ‘Knee Socks’ – TLC vamping up Suzanne Vega’s ‘Tom’s Diner’ – as he ruefully reflects upon a winter romance. While Helders and Turner unleash a crazed skat vocal, Homme croons like a lovelorn wine waiter. Its pathos contrasts with the preceding ‘Snap Out Of It”s surreal brio; Turner’s attempt to write a song where everything moves backwards.
That the Arctic Monkeys can mess with their cell structure and yet still sound exactly like themselves declares a robust group identity. Unlike its predecessor – which unquestionably carried excess baggage – AM has no weak points, merely mood shifts which, thanks to supreme sequencing of its 12 songs, lend the album a satisfying cyclical momentum. It closes with a version of ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ from John Cooper Clarke’s 1982 album Zip Style Method, restyling the Salford poet’s pawky love letter (“I wanna be your vacuum cleaner/Breathing in your dust”) to a slow desert groove. Coming at the end of an album brim-full of hedonistic urges, its entreaty of faith feels sweetly old-fashioned. Turner even adds his own refrain: “Secrets I have held in my heart are harder to hide than I thought/Maybe I just wanna be yours.”
This is exciting, audacious work from a band once again on the edge of a new future. Wherever they go, they’ll assuredly have a bigger audience looking on. In 2007, Alex Turner told MOJO that he couldn’t envision himself still being in a band at 30. He’s now 27. This Monkey business is a life sentence.
© Keith Cameron, MOJO, October 2013