Arctic Monkeys: “Suck It and See”

The Arctic Monkeys are a smart band, and I love them for it. I love them because they always know exactly what kind of album they need to make next, the steps they need to take to avoid backing themselves into a corner. For Album #4, that means backing out of the shadows Josh Homme cast over their sound for the dark, dripping decadence of Humbug. I happened to really love that album– not in spite of, but because of its trippy vibe and expansive sprawl– and I happen to like Suck It and See a bit less, at least for now. My enthusiasm for the band hasn’t flagged a bit, though. They’ve absorbed the lessons they learned in Homme’s private desert, and they’ve moved forward– confident that what makes them a great band isn’t anything they could ever be taught, but rather something that’s in their very DNA.

I suppose I should confess to this small irony, then: The best song here is the one that most closely resembles the Humbug material. “Brick by Brick” isn’t a stirring single on the level of “Fluorescent Adolescent” or even “Crying Lightning”– and if there’s anything this album lacks, it’s a killer single on which to hang its hat– but it’s still a pretty killer rock and roll song, layered in some version of Homme-inspired murk and complete with a Sabbath-aping guitar solo. Alex Turner pulls off pure, obsessive menace as well as he ever has, and the song’s momentum builds in a way that speaks to this group’s  instinctive grasp of rock and roll craft. And if it tips its hat to the Humbug sessions, so what? The band isn’t interested in disowning that album, but simply of building on its foundation– and that means some of the tricks they learned yield new fruit here.

Much of the rest of the album seems almost to use the Humbug song “Cornerstone” as their foundation; given that “Cornerstone” was the quiet, melodic heart of that album, that’s really just another way of saying that it marries some of that record’s sonic richness to the lighter, more song-oriented pop approach of Favourite Worst Nightmare— still my favorite of their albums, by the way. Truthfully, Suck It doesn’t ever capture the same sense of piledriving momentum or wide-open possibility that made their second record a stone cold stunner, but its approach is much the same, albeit revisited through the perspective of a slightly more matured band that is a bit more willing to play with the structure of their songs, a bit more interested in songcraft than in pure fraying rock energy, and– crucially– able to slow things down without the entire flow of the record coming to a screeching halt (perhaps Nightmare‘s lone flaw).

In truth, some of the band’s excursions into its poppier limits seem just a bit too weightless when compared to previous Monkeys albums, something that I suspect has more to do with the light touch (too light, here and there) of producer James Ford, who also did the first couple of Monkeys albums. I should note, however, that some of the record’s best moments are the songs that depart the most from the Humbug aesthetic, and indeed, from the Arctic Monkeys wheelhouse altogether. “Black Treacle” is a light, buoyant pop song that hits hard and has the feel of a classic. Less immediate but no less rewarding is “Don’t Sit Down Because I’ve Moved Your Chair,” the rather dubious choice for a first single that doesn’t come out swinging with big hooks, but rather sinks in over time due to its insistent, throbbing pulse.

Even on the songs that grab me a bit less, though, I can’t help but be a little smitten by how confidently this band continues coming into its own. For all the praise they received upon their debut, the Arctic Monkeys always struck me as a bit tentative at first, masterful at rehearsing all the right stylistic touchstones but lacking the boldness necessary to be something all their own. They’re a much better band now, and Suck It proves it in spades, be it in how they open things with a relatively gentle number like “She’s Thunderstorms,” or largely turn down the volume in the record’s back stretch. And Alex Turner continues to write songs that are emotionally scathing– and at times remarkably poignant– even though they’re based largely on extended wordplay, making him something like Britpop’s belated answer to the younger version of Elvis Costello. Actually, he’s quickly developing the most singular style British rock has seen since the glory days of Morrissey— or at least Jarvis Cocker— which is, ironically enough, what saves some of the lesser tunes from being mere Smiths knock-offs.

Which is all to say, I guess, that the vast majority of this stuff works, and even when it doesn’t quite gel, I’m tremendously pleased with where the Arctic Monkeys have gone. They’ve been in a very good place on their last pair of records, and I suspect their best work is yet to come; Suck It and See may well prove to be a bridge, but even if that’s the case, it’s an appealing and impressive album in its own right.

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