When Arctic Monkeys titled their third album “Humbug”, it was a telling sign. They had recorded the album with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme out at his Joshua Tree studio in the California desert, and appropriately it was a dark, often psychedelic sojourn that divided much of the band’s fan base. Whereas you had previous songs titled things like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “Brianstorm”, a song created about a weird guy they met one night while on tour, the last record featured “Crying Lightning” and “Fire and the Thud”, both written with the same sense of sincerity that their titles suggest. The point is, after reaching success as fresh-faced teenagers, Arctic Monkeys had grown up and were politely requesting to be taken seriously. In addition to many fans being turned off by that record, reviews were not strong either, suggesting this change was for the worse. Nearly two years later, the guys seem to have heard and registered that disappointment, creating their fourth record and settling on the title of “Suck It and See”. The phrase has its share of speculated origins, but at its heart is a bit of a joke with sexual undertones. Between that and song titles like “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” and “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala”, it seems that Arctic Monkeys are back to their jovial, energetic selves that so many people fell in love with across their first two albums.
It’s fascinating that the first track from “Suck It and See” that Arctic Monkeys chose to release to the general public was “Brick By Brick”, a heavy-handed and psychedelic song fronted by drummer Matt Helders and very much in the spirit of the majority of “Humbug”. If the band was hoping to show some of the lessons they learned from that last album, “Brick By Brick” wasn’t the track to do that with. Taking that same sort of guitar crunch and applying it to some smartass lyrics helps quite a bit actually, as evidenced by “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”. Whether frontman Alex Turner is looking to, “Go into business with a grizzly bear” or “find a well-known hard man/and start a fight”, it makes for an entertaining listen even if it’s not quite catchy enough to be considered a strong single. What’s even more fascinating is how both those tracks are very much unlike the rest of the album. The teaching moment emerges in the thought that perhaps the band isn’t entirely done with some of the sounds and themes of their last record, or at the very least wanted to provide a more varied range of sounds that better encompassed their musical careers thus far.
What actually makes “Suck It and See” a record with serious forward momentum for Arctic Monkeys is how they present most of the songs on it. They’ve taken the focus away from riffing and dark instrumental passages to go lighter and snarkier, though even Turner’s lyrics are pushed farther into the background in the hopes that melody might reign supreme. The mid-tempo opening track “She’s Thunderstorms” is a lovely predictor of what’s to come on the rest of the album, and it has Turner pulling out his best Morrissey impression because it feels warranted. The bass-heavy “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” may have a rather bland (but easily memorable) chorus, but everything else about it is positively spectacular. The bounce and sheer confidence the band shows both lyrically and instrumentally makes it one of the album’s more standout moments. The heavier guitars and massive energy brought to “Library Pictures” is admirable, recalling some of the earliest Arctic Monkeys songs that got them so much attention upon first starting out. Unfortunately this song doesn’t quite have that same sort of impact, primarily because it lacks a strong enough hook to stick with you after it ends. The same could be said for a track like “Reckless Serenade”, but what it lacks in memorability it more than makes up for with rather brilliant lyrics. Couplets such as, “illuminations on a rainy day/when she walks her footsteps sing a reckless serenade” are what help to turn the tide on otherwise forgettable song. Even better is “Piledriver Waltz”, which holds the slow dance tempo its title suggests and espouses that, “if you’re going to try to walk on water, make sure you wear comfortable shoes”. If you’re looking for a true late album highlight though, the title track is the spot to go. There’s a casual loveliness to it, complete with a strong chorus and what might be the two most poetically classic lines on the entire record, “That’s not a skirt girl, that’s a sawn off shotgun/and i can only hope you’ve got it aimed at me”.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Suck It and See” is how Arctic Monkeys appear to have mellowed out just a bit. The lack of heavy guitars and intense energy has given way to a much more pop-driven atmosphere. As a result many of the songs on this album are easy to like, even if they aren’t packed to the gills with hooks at every turn. For sure this is a slow burn album, revealing more and more layers as you listen to it over and over again. In that sense you could also call it a deep album, something that’s typically a product of intellingent songwriting and composition, both of which this record has in spades. If Alex Turner sounds all too often like Morrissey, it’s not your imagination, nor is it if you think you hear a bit of Johnny Marr’s touches in guitarist Jamie Cook’s riffs. If The Smiths were to make a record in 2011, it might sound an awful lot like this, even if the lyrics would have gone in a completely different direction. But this attitude adjustment from Arctic Monkeys does less to bring back their old days as an energetic, youthful alt-rock band with a hunger for stardom a mile wide, and instead reflects more on a band that having tasted fame and fortune now seek mid-career respectability. Turner’s lyrics continue to be the sharpest thing about the band, and the challenges they now face are more structural ones than anything else. A couple tracks on the record either don’t fully fit in or just come off as bland and ineffective. These are the sorts of things that can happen when you avoid taking too many risks and just settle into complacency. Arctic Monkeys are still plenty young and clearly still have long careers ahead of them, so they can probably afford trying a few more dangerous sounds for their next few efforts. Let’s hope they take advantage of that while their iron is still hot.