The New Arctic Monkeys — Still Good But Just Not As Brilliant

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You have probably noticed that the Arctic Monkeys are back, with a bunch of gigs, plenty of European summer festival appearances, and a new album, their first in 5 years.

They are also back, not surprisingly after so long, with a new image and a new sound. In a career spanning only 13 years to date, a 5 year sojourn represents a large proportion of the total allowing plenty of time for change (or “progression”).

Unfortunately it would seem many of the fans have not moved on with the band and the new album has garnered mixed reviews. An average of only 3 stars on amazon (a site strongly biased towards the positive) is pretty poor, with currently 31% of customers awarding just the 1 *. One or two armchair reviewers even bemoaned the unavailability of a zero star option! Hashtag harsh.

Is this fair? Is it too early to present a fair assessment? Is it just a knee jerk reaction to something very different to what has gone before?

What the Monkeys can be praised for, again, is doing something new and different. They have rarely stood still over their 6 album output with each album ploughing new furrows although it has to be said the changes have been gradual up until now. This more pronounced change of direction since 2013’s stadium rock friendly AM could just be a little bit too much of a shock for the original fans hoping for an “AM2”.

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The full collection of Arctic Monkeys albums 2006–18

The fast indie thrash of their stunning 2006 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was gradually watered down through follow ups Favourite Worst Nightmare, and Humbug. The common thread through these three remained Alex Turner’s Mike Skinner (The Streets) like delivery of witty and inciteful lyrics backed by skilful guitar riffage and thunderous drumming.

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Arctic Monkeys in the beginning

Yeah I’m sorry I was late
Well I missed the train
And then the traffic was a state
And I can’t be arsed to carry on in this debate
That reoccurs, oh when you say I don’t care
Well of course I do, yeah I clearly do!
So laugh and joke around
Remember cuddles in the kitchen
Yeah, to get things off the ground
And it was up, up and away
Still it’s right hard to remember
That on a day like today when you’re all argumentative
And you’ve got the face on

(Growing up with a Mardy Bum in Sheffield)

Then came Suck It and See which probably represented the biggest single leap in style between albums to date as the band slowed down and became heavier — a more conventional rock sound that was developed further on the more mature AM. Suck It and See was their most Oasis sounding album, AM had some glam leanings that have been fully embraced on Tranquility.

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Arctic Monkeys a bit later on

It is early days for the new album of course, and I strongly suspect it will be a grower but would it be given any air time if it wasn’t the Arctic Monkeys? If this was a new debut album from a brand new band it would probably have sunk without trace. In fact it probably wouldn’t have been made in the first place.

But that’s a largely irrelevant argument. Many artists earn the right to do what they want after a string of success. Many mid period albums by artists were initially received with disappointment only subsequently to become considered masterpieces. Neil Young’s On The Beach featured in my log #85 is an example although there are literally hundreds.

Young is a good example, although from a different era. After the success of his Harvest album he deliberately set out to alienate fans and record companies alike only to produce a string of masterpieces in the mid 70s. Perhaps in the 80s he took it too far and was eventually sued by his record company for making records unrepresentative of himself (however that was defined legally is anyone’s guess)!

For once the record company was right — Young made some absolute turkeys in the 80s peaking (if that’s the word) with Everybody’s Rockin’, a 50s rockabilly pastiche he made in response to the record company (Geffen) demanding “rock and roll”. Young maintained this was a serious project (as was the previous “electronic” album Trans based on the communication difficulties experienced by Young’s handicapped son) but the paucity of the album (25 minutes of lacklustre originals and uninspired covers) and accompanying gigs where he wore a shockin’ pink suit and sat in a pink car on stage suggested otherwise.

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Probably Neil Young’s lowest point

Anyway after a decade of rubbish his career nevertheless survived and he came back stronger than ever in the 90s with a return to heavy rock and finding himself being christened the “Godfather of Grunge” as the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam became popular.

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Arctic Monkeys now

On initial listens I think Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is a good album that is beginning to grow on me. It’s more a brave record than a lazy one. There are some nice laid back tracks with decent grooves and Alex Turner’s voice has matured into a pleasant croon like fellow Sheffield singer Richard Hawley, in contrast to his shouty beginnings (his voice was great for their style at the time, and it is now too).

Turner’s singing is treated to plentiful reverb which does give the sound quite a retro 60s feel. The comparisons to early 70s Bowie are fine by me, and I was also reminded of Radiohead, and the very laid back Americana band Lambchop strangely too especially when Turner goes falsetto.

Thematically, both lyrically and musically, the album maintains a continuity throughout. It is impressive the band have plunged into their new project wholeheartedly when there would have been a huge temptation to dilute the whole with some nods back to their previous sound.

From the first bars of the album opener Star Treatment the new sound is startingly — gentle lilting vibes usher in Alex Turner’s softly spoken vocal which does immediately reveal some form of identity crisis for UK pop’s golden boy:

I just wanted to be one of The Strokes
Now look at the mess you made me make
Hitchhiking with a monogrammed suitcase
Miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway
I’m a big name in deep space, ask your mates
But golden boy’s in bad shape

It’s one of the album’s strongest tracks. Another is the title track with a lovely rolling bass and stuttered drumming behind a simple effective piano riff. Perhaps the rest of the band are slightly underemployed elsewhere in an album that could be an Alex Turner solo album in all but name, but here the new Arctic Monkeys blossom as one embracing their new exciting direction.

The title track follows a another key cut — American Sports which has some of the best piano on the album and some excellent distorted Jonny Greenwood like guitar. Throughout the album the emphasis is much more on the keyboards and piano, with the guitar less prominent or completely absent:

I love playing guitar but as a writing tool, I’d reached a point where it wasn’t getting me anywhere.

After the first half the standard drops a little. Golden Trunks has a nice distorted guitar break but is a bit lightweight. The catchy Four Out of Five is an obvious single. It is the most Bowie (Let’s Dance era) sounding song on the album. The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip with it’s fairground organ is a throwaway number.

One or two of the remaining tracks, especially She Looks Like Fun verge on former Arctic trademark riffing although the guitar is watered down. Batphone is a bit all over the place but is saved by an intriguing other worldly slide guitar or keyboard refrain (I don’t know which). Finally The Ultracheese is like it says, very cheesy, but I can imagine this Bowie Five Years like ballad becoming a live singalong favourite.

How will we view Tranquility in the fullness of time and in the context of a further albums assuming the AMs carry on? For now the most loyal Arctics fans would probably have to concede it is the weakest of the 6 so far, but where will it sit in the canon in a few year’s time?

A reputation and past success gives an artist plenty of time to experiment (or be downright awkward and curmudgeonly as in Young’s case) — an opportunity Turner and his band have fully embraced. Where will they go next? No one is ever going to deny the Arctic Monkeys a recording contract even if they follow up the slightly tepid Tranquility Hotel with a string of duffers. Even so 5 1/2 excellent albums is a pretty good return these days for any band where longevity is a rare commodity.

Musings on Music from 6 Album Sunday

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