Arctic Monkeys latest adventure — an overload of hyper-chiselled lyricism and a touch too much of yer manly riff-rock
IF YOU ONLY BUY one record of Alex Turner songs this year, you might be safest with his pocket-sized soundtrack to Richard Ayoade’s Submarine. In these drolly romantic compositions his burly croon isn’t just an effect, but an entire persona, a persuasive successor to the yappy smalltown diarist of old. Having emerged from the transitional pastiches of The Last Shadow Puppets, he’s Richard Hawley with a mordant streak, Morrissey with a full-blown libido, Nick Cave with a long engagement in a northern seaside town.
That Turner surfaces on Suck It and See — soundtrack highlight ‘Piledriver Waltz’ reappears here — but the fourth Arctic Monkeys record is a much trickier proposition. There were moments when I felt I never wanted to hear another note from Arctic Monkeys and others when I thought they’d never been better. Anyone familiar with 2009’s Humbug might know the feeling. The band have billed this as “more song-based” than Humbug, as if that record had been capsized by too many questing krautrock jams as opposed to simply sub-par songs. In fact, it has a similar shape, by turns flaring into life and dwindling to ashes.
If confectionery metaphors are the order of the day, then Suck It And See has a sweet coating and a rebarbative, tooth-cracking centre. ‘She’s Thunderstorms’a nd ‘Black Treacle’ are handsome openers, proving that one can admire The Walker Brothers and the Pixies equally and that a good pathetic fallacy never goes out of style. But then, as with Humbug, the band’s bromance with Josh Homme rears its head. Now, Homme (this time mentor rather than producer) is a fine musician and an estimable human being, but his manly riff-rock is a dead end for this band. Sung by Matt Helders, ‘Brick By Brick’ is exactly as workmanlike as its title, a gruesome bit of grunt-and-thud that sets back the cause of giving the drummer a go by several years. ‘Don’t Sit Down, I’ve Moved Your Chair'( those titles!) is a novelty squib in which Turner overenunciates every unfunny line for maximum discomfort. Making ‘Brick By Brick’ a free download and ‘Don’t Sit Down’ the kick-off single is a confounding bit of kamikaze marketing.
On and on this infernal mid-section trough goes until, just as you’re about to say “to hell with this”, the final five-song stretch turns the whole thing around. ‘Reckless Serenade’ and the title song are elegant ’60s throwbacks, albeit with similarly retrograde sexual politics. “That’s not a skirt, girl, that’s a sawn-off shotgun”, leers Turner. “And I only hope you’ve got it aimed at me”. To its detriment, the line recalls ‘Mardy Bum”s “I’ve seen your frown/And it’s like looking down the barrel of a gun”. That simile felt like everyday poetry, whereas this one is just a gag. Little did we know that when he was describing all those characters on the debut he was really bidding them goodbye. His women now are all sirens, heartbreakers, thunderstorms. Yet it’s when he stoops to detail — “the type of kisses where teeth collide” (‘Reckless Serenade’) or “watching cowboy films on gloomy afternoons” (‘All My Own Stunts’) — that they seem like people rather than clusters of metaphors.
Turner’s also a sucker for tweaking a cliché, often with a bathetic punchline. “Someone told the stars you were coming out tonight/And so they found a place to hide” (‘Black Treacle’) is lovely. “Called up to listen to your voice of reason/And got the answering machine” (‘Reckless Serenade’) will do. “If you’re going to try and walk on water/Make sure you wear your comfortable shoes” (‘Piledriver Waltz’) honks. He loves words, no doubt, but they don’t always love him back. The pathological wordplay keeps him at one remove, which is why the glitteringly sad ‘Love Is A Laserquest’ (title notwithstanding) is so wonderful. Every word counts, every syntactical twist works (“Do you still feel younger than you thought you would by now?”), every joke is a heartbroken man’s futile attempt to ward off depression: “When I’m pipe and slippers and rocking chair/Singing dreadful songs about summer/Will I have found a better method of/Pretending you were just some lover?” It’s a career highlight, as is the stirring, compassionate, Bunnymen/New Order marvel ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’.
So you’re left with a conundrum. Can Arctic Monkeys really not tell their good ideas from their bad ones? Are the lump-rock grunters more fun to play live or, in the interests of band democracy, a sop to Helders and guitarist Jamie Cook? Whatever the reason, when Helders hollers “I wanna rock’n’roll!” on ‘Brick By Brick’, I would advise strongly against it.
© Dorian Lynskey, The Word, July 2011