Arctic Monkeys: Same Skill, Different Day

Suck It and See: 4 stars (out of 5)

One of these days, Alex Turner and the Arctic Monkeys will release a bad album.

At least, that’s what history and convention would tell us.  One might have predicted that the mediocrity would have come with Favourite Worst Nightmare, the follow-up to their debut monster Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.  Or on the dreaded ‘transitional third album.’  Or, now, by album #4, a time when bands have gotten their label from the media and public and can do precious little to change perception.

And yet, it never happens with them.  Five years after Whatever turned the U.K. on its side, Turner and co. calmly drop Suck It and See on us and sit back with their arms folded, content to let their work stand on its own.  There’s no radical change like on 2009’s Humbug, but instead a supremely assured, don’t-need-to-prove-anything-to-anyone feel.

Suck It And See occupies a middle ground between the Monkeys’ early sound—manifest on the first two albums—and the ominous, slower Humbug.  And thanks largely to Turner, the balance works splendidly—there’s a dark vibe here, but the rousing melodic flourishes keep it alive, make the darkness analogous to the chic metallic black of a luxury car rather than a storm cloud.

The hooks—simple at first, complicated later—propel tunes like intriguing opener “She’s Thunderstorms” and the title track.  Musically, they continue Humbug’s slower paces, but guitarist Jaime Cook offers up juicier licks this time.  They still shine at keeping songs just off-center enough to remain compelling (“All My Own Stunts”), but, really, Suck It succeeds by confirming—for anyone who somehow hadn’t realized it yet—that Alex Turner is a premier lyricist of our generation.

Most of the time, he doesn’t make it easy on the listener; lines like “Somebody told the stars you’re not coming out tonight / So they found a place to hide” and “She looks as if she’s blowing a kiss at me / And suddenly the sky is a scissor” might make you pause in contemplation for a moment before you fall for them.  Similarly, on the effortlessly smooth title track, he fawns over a girl who’s “Rarer than a can of dandelion and burdock / And those other girls are just post-mix lemonade.”

On the other hand, sometimes he keeps it straightforward and incisive, as with, “You talk the talk alright / But do you walk the walk or catch the train?” or “I called up to listen to the voice of reason / And got his answering machine.”  If anyone out there has never felt like this, kindly return to your home planet before you scare any small children.

On Humbug, Turner began to express a desire for mature, adult connections, and that continues here—nowhere more so than on the exquisite “Love is a Laserquest.”  This is 2011’s “Cornerstone,” and while that one remains their all-time peak, “Love” finds Turner expanding his range like Bono did when he jumped from his laconic 80s love songs to the dense 90s ones.  Over a haunting bed of music that recalls Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up,” Turner spits out Conor Oberst-worthy lyrics about a failed relationship: “I can’t think of there without thinking of you / I doubt that comes as a surprise / I can’t think of anything to dream about / I can’t find anywhere to hide.”

Turner’s voice has never sounded more full, and yet you’re surprised that they’d go so sad, so deep; lines like “When I’m hanging on by the rings around my eyes / And I convince myself I need another / For a minute it gets easier to pretend that you were just some lover” almost make you think you’re listening to the Red House Painters.  Likewise, the breathtaking final verse of the album’s second-best track, “Black Treacle,” features the unexpectedly depressive lament “I tried last night to pack away a laugh / Like a key under the mat / But it never seems to be there when you want it.”

Of course, Turner maintains his playfulness much of the time.  “I’ve been feeling foolish / You should try it,” he teases on the opener, one of those Monkeys tracks that you think is a love song but keeps you in suspense.  Later, he hits with, “If you’re gonna try to walk on water / Be sure to wear your comfortable shoes.”  But the aforementioned moments on Suck It and See make you wonder how intense he’ll go in the future.

As on Humbug, a couple missteps keep this album from attaining the kind of legendary status their debut deserved.  Clunky lead single “Brick by Brick” irritates me for the simple reason that I can imagine a noob hearing it on the radio and saying, “Hmm, they sound kind of boring,” which makes me want to kill someone.  The last couplet of “Library Pictures” sneers with gleeful menace, but the track slides between fast and slow too many times.  A couple memorable lines help us overlook that “Reckless Serenade” and “Piledriver Waltz” are pleasant, but little more.

Yet, by the last three songs, you’ll have forgotten about these flaws.  You’ll have been taken in by the sound, their refusal to fade away, and Alex Turner’s remarkable lyrics.  The concluding trio constitute a thematic climax nearly comparable to the ‘suite of death’ concluding The Joshua Tree or the three-track travel through the end of days on Joy Divison’s Closer.

American listeners might infer the title track’s suggestion as a brawny middle-finger—and I have no problem with that—but the lovely harmony on that chorus hints that the band probably intended to invoke the British meaning of the phrase—‘Give it a try.’  “That’s Where You’re Wrong” deserves its New Order comparisons, as few other bands do smooth, bass-heavy, mid-tempo ballads quite like this.  Then again, Bernard Sumner, for all his gifts, never approached the lyrical prowess of Alex Turner.  When the latter sings, “There are no handles for you to hold / And no understanding where it goes…Don’t take it so personally / You’re not the only one that time has got it in for,” with an ecstatic guitar break in between and a sinewy melody holding it all together, you’ll be grateful that his conflicted youth means there are probably many, many more productive years to follow.

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