If the Arctic Monkeys' career path has seemed like a disappointment, it's only because they drew Beatles comparisons when they burst onto the scene in 2006 with the album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, the fastest-selling debut in British music history. We should have known that the band wasn't going to match the Fab Four, but even still, it's carved out a nice run of smart songwriting and adventurous modern production.
On their latest album, AM, released today, the Arctic Monkeys turn their back on the pop leanings of their previous release, 2011’s Suck It And See, and pay homage to their British predecessors — and no, not the Beatles. Rather, they swipe from heavy blues-influenced rockers like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and even take some grandiosity from David Bowie. While AM is quite catchy and well put together, it doesn't quite live up to the heritage it's tapping into.
The Zeppelin sound can be heard strongly on “R U Mine,” the album’s lead single. After a distorted guitar shiver and a vicious drum fill, the band kicks into high gear, as frontman Alex Turner sings a string of psychedelic imagery: “I’m a puppet on a string / Tracy Island, time traveling diamond / Coulda shaped heartaches / Come to find ya fall in some velvet morning.” Turner’s wails and trembles are reminiscent of Robert Plant's, and a chorus of ghostly female vocalists complements his hard-edged tone beautifully.
"Arabella," the fourth track, shows the group combining older and more modern influences. The song begins with a creeping keyboard lick that wouldn’t be out of place as a sample on a hip-hop album, and a "War Pigs"-like riff comes down has hard as a sledgehammer. To be sure, Turner is singing about a lighter subject than Ozzy Osbourne did, but the crunchy blues riffs and no-nonsense guitar attack are just as heavy.
And then there’s "No. 1 Party Anthem," a ballad straight from Bowie's playbook. The slowest song on the album, it features majestic, rolling piano chords, over which Turner purrs an epic about a failed sexual conquest. The song drips with the irony implied by the title; even though Turner’s lyrics portray him as a normal, struggling dude, the grandiosity of the music suggests otherwise.
In a way, AM is a step forward and two steps back for the Arctic Monkeys. They’ve once again proved their songwriting chops and swagger, but also gone out of their way to tie themselves to the British rock gods that preceded them. Emulation can be a great way to make good, and even great, music, but derivative work is unlikely to land you in the canon.