At the time, Josh Homme acting as producer for the Arctic Monkeys’ 2009 album Humbug didn’t feel like a game-changer for the group, but jumping four years down the line to AM, it’s impossible not to hear the Queens of the Stone Age mastermind’s influence. In some ways, it makes sense that Homme and Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner would be kindred spirits: both of these guys have led capital R Rock Bands since before they were old enough to drink, and somehow, you can’t imagine either of them doing anything else. Since the 2009 collaboration, there’s been a certain bromance between the two both on and off records: on record, Homme appeared on Humbug‘s followed up and AM while Turner showed up on QotSA’s …Like Clockwork; off record, Turner moved out to LA, about an hour out from Homme’s Palm Springs.
The point is, Homme’s presence is so thorough on AM that when the Queensman himself shows up for backing vocals on “One For the Road” and “Knee Socks”, it’s jarring to realize he hasn’t been there the whole time. The cooing falsettos on “Do I Wanna Know?”, “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”, or “R U Mine?” aren’t his, but come courtesy of drummer Matt Helders and bassist Nick O’Malley, and sound as much a part of the band as the angular riffs on AM.
Given what it is, I see two perfectly valid reasons in naming the album AM. Most obviously, it’s an abbreviated take on a self-titled album. Accordingly, AM fits most of the stereotypes associated with having a self-titled record five albums into your career: this is the first album Arctic Monkeys have released where they can comfortably be described as sounding like themselves. The album’s sound is a melting pot of the frenzied post-punk/garage rock of their first two albums, the psychedelia of Humbug, and the guitar pop of Suck It and See mixed with some deliberate hip-hop influences. The hip-hop influence translates to some slower and groovier beats, but they fit the lumbering riffs of the group like a glove. AM is essentially Arctic Monkeys’ “brand” record.
For a group who could have easily imploded after two albums, AM‘s sound hints at some longevity. The first five songs (plus second half standout “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”) play to the band’s strengths as a junior Queens of the Stone Age between the stomping drums and grinding riffs. Opener “Do I Wanna Know?” works as a one-song summary for AM, and “R U Mine?” is explosive and snarling in all the right ways. The next three songs keep a happy balance between smooth and sexy rhythms and beats with surprisingly aggressive guitar work (see the “War Pigs” riff in “Arabella”). Meanwhile, things lighten up in the album’s two-song, blissed out, middle section of “No. 1 Party Anthem” and “Mad Sounds”, which recall the expansive pop of Suck It and See. The backhalf of the album slides quality-wise, with “When You’re High?” and the murky, drum-machine heavy closer “I Wanna Be Yours” acting as highlights. Still, there’s a range to AM‘s sound that feels surprising.
The other interpretation to AM is “after midnight”, where its subject matter dwells. This is a record meant to soundtrack the nervous, half-shouted conversations and inner-monologues born from 2 AM and too much to drink. “Do I Wanna Know?” colors the album in the lyric “Ever thought of calling when you’ve had a few?/Cause I always do”, while “One for the Road” proposes treating a break-up like last call at the bar. There’s plenty of sex and alcohol on AM, but for how lively the music sounds, the lyrics are covered in anxiety and desperation. “Why’d You Only Call Me…” nails this tone best, with “No. 1 Party Anthem”, where the narrator’s begging to hear a pump-up song before chatting up a girl, in a close second. Elsewhere, tunes like “I Wanna Be Yours” and “I Want It All” describe a guy who will drunkenly take it where he can get it. An early Alex Turner lyric observed “Weekend rockstars in the toilets, practicing their lines”, now he’s gone from observer to participant.
Much like a night out drinking, AM meanders through its own highs and lows. There are some keepers here, but the quality and pacing of the album drop after “Mad Sounds”. Even in that good stretch, there are a few take’em-or-leave’em numbers that won’t invite replays outside AM as a whole. It’s sexy, and even with missteps, a surprisingly replayable and likable album. Three and a half stars out of five.
tl;dr: AM goes well with Jack and Coke, but like all good nights out, the ingredients aren’t always perfect. 3.5/5.