There are a lot of people alive in this moment who would proclaim that the Arctic Monkeys are the best band in the world. An awful lot of people would disagree with that, and an awful lot of people would argue that they are one of the best, if not quite the absolute best. There is one thing that I feel I can’t shake, however, which is that the Monkeys feel like the band of my generation. If you, like me, were aged between 10 and 15 years old when Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not came out (and became the fastest selling British debut album in history), then you may feel that you too have grown up with the Arctic Monkeys. From the baggy jeans to the shaggy hair and on to the be-leather-jacketed era, Alex Turner and co. have been a presence in our lives as other past bands may have been for our parents. But with the release of AM in September 2013, I feel that, above all, what we should be praising Turner for is the way in which he has allowed poetry to stay alive and in our thoughts. Here is why AM, in a similar but more coherent way than their previous albums, is a work of art.
Let’s look at Do I Wanna Know?, the first song on the album. First of all is the title, written in deliberate slang to resemble the way one might text it to an almost-lover, both trying to appear nonchalant with colloquial spelling and yet also failing to hide the tension beneath. The song opens with the pulse of a ‘kick and clap’ drum beat, which is so damnably effective that it proves to be the hook of the entire piece; it pulses like the beat of a heart, and yet with enough reverb to give it the sensation of distance, as if it is being heard down a dark corridor. Then there is the riff – and if I cannot describe this riff as anything other than sexy then words fail me. It is tantalising and fixating and incredibly lascivious, redolent of swaying hips and attempts to lock eyes from across the room.
The song is not crowded, with the two guitars panned one to the left ear and one to the right when listening through earphones, with a slightly reverberating fuzzy tone on the right and a clean tone on the left, the bass interposing in single-stroke intervals. The genius, however, comes when you realise that both the drums and the vocals are kept in the centre of the sound. This has the rather incredible effect of making us feel as if the singer is singing down towards the drums, that beating heart at the end of the corridor, with the two guitars acting as ‘walls’ to direct his voice and the bass acting as the ‘floor’. The overall sensation of frustrated sexual desire is, therefore, heightened. The sense of distance and desire echoing over empty space is then re-modelled in the second verse, when neither guitar is playing. The reverb of the drums now takes a split second longer to pan out to both the left and right ear, like ripples spreading over a still glass of water, and the bass continuing to interlude with its muffled fuzz in single-stroke notes.
And then there are the lyrics, which as a complete package with the music leave this song absolutely brimming with sexual tension. Consider the lines:
I dreamt about you nearly/
Every night this week…/
‘Cos there’s this tune I found/
That makes me think of you somehow/
And I play it on repeat/
Until I fall asleep/
Spilling drinks on my settee.
Here Turner is using an iambic meter, which means a da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM kind of a rhythm. Again this is clever, as it coincides with the pulsing drum beat and is again redolent of a beating heart, which is so important when you consider that the intense beating of the heart is what people so often remark on when they are in a sexually compromised situation. Then there is the rhyme-scheme, which in both verses keeps almost entirely to the same rhyme, again suggesting a constant repetition of the same thought. But more important is the content of the lyrics; anyone who has been in the position which Turner describes of being desperately attracted to someone who has you under their thumb (“Too busy being yours/ To fall for someone new”) will relate to these lyrics immediately. Things like listening to songs that remind you of that person and being in some way haunted by them both at day and at night, to the point that you can’t stop dreaming about them, are both things that the infatuated will most likely have experienced. The speaker is almost bordering on obsessive, but they give themself a qualifying humility with that last line “Spilling drinks on my settee”, normalising the machinations of their infatuated mind with a simple description of spilling a drink. But again, this gives us a domestic setting, familiar to all of us, and again makes the song relatable.
Turner goes in for some truly excellent imagery and wit here too. Take for example the following:
Been wondering if your heart’s still open/
And if so I wanna know what time it shuts.
As ever with Turner’s lyrics, there is this normalising irony present. The idea of a heart opening and closing as a shop does is so effective because it’s out of context and yet is familiar to anyone who has ever so much as been shopping.
But possibly the greatest asset that Turner has harnessed over the years is his incredible capacity for irony. Take Dancing Shoes from their first record; this song talks to an embarrassed youth at a nightclub and the fact that he has only really come to pull:
The only reason that you came/
So what you scared for?/
Well don’t you always do the same?…
…And some might exchange a glance/
But keep pretending to dance.
One of the reasons this album was so popular amongst teenagers was because of songs like this, which speak directly to the angst-ridden voice within us. It’s as if the lad is telling himself to get it together and overcome his own adolescent awkwardness. But the fantastic irony is in the line “Get on your dancing shoes”, which is such a hilarious idea when you realise the song is about an embarrassed teenager trying to pull. Equally, consider Number One Party Anthem, vying for the best lyric on AM. This in many ways is a more mature version of Dancing Shoes, about the dislocation and inauthenticity involved with partying. The irony is located partly in the double-bluff of the title, as the song is actually ballad-esque, and the slow, poetic style captures to a tee the secret loneliness of the partygoer. The speaker is searching for a “certified mind-blower” of a girl, and when he does find her again, Turner blithely jibes:
Call off the search for your soul/
Or put it on hold again/
She’s having a sly indoor smoke/
And she calls the folks who run this joint/
Her oldest friends.
Indeed, AM is an album overflowing with some fantastic lyricism. In Arabella we have lines like:
[She’s got] a helter skelter round her little finger and I ride it endlessly…/
And when she needs to shelter from reality she takes a dip in my daydreams.
But what ultimately lends AM a lasting quality is the fact that, although it is full of this wonderful lyrical poeticism, the final song, I Wanna Be Yours, takes it’s lyrics entirely from a 1980s poem by John Cooper-Clarke. In the poem, the speaker trades his integrity for material value in order to literally belong to the beloved person he or she speaks to. It goes like this:
I wanna be your vacuum cleaner/
Breathing in your dust/
I wanna be your Ford Cortina/
I won’t ever rust/
If you like your coffee hot/
Let me be your coffee pot/
You call the shots babe/
I just wanna be yours.
The modesty of this final act in this album is really quite astounding. It’s as if Turner is saying, ‘yeah I’m alright, but check out this guy.’ After lyrics such as Do I Wanna Know? and Number One Party Anthem, this is really saying something. Arctic Monkey’s fans love them for all kinds of different reasons, but the most particular word of thanks should go to Alex Turner for the poetry. This, above all else, is why I’m glad to say that my generation is a generation of Arctic Monkey’s fanatics.