Arctic Monkeys Outgrow Fluorescent Adolescence

The Arctic Monkeys -- 'Suck It and See' -- Domino -- 4 STARS

COURTESY DOMINO

Unless you’re a comedy band like Spinal Tap, it takes guts to name an album “Suck It and See.” It takes serious bravado, or simply a desire to appear controversial, to display that title with no cover art to hide it. In its cocky abrasiveness, “Suck it and See” remains true to the Arctic Monkeys’ Yorkshire roots—a feat that is especially impressive given their transatlantic success. But while this album does not by any means play it safe, it doesn’t quite meet the expectations entertained by its brazen title. Devotees of the group’s sound will find much to praise in “Suck it and See,” except perhaps an adequate dose of daring.

On “Suck it and See,” lead singer and lyricist Alex Turner extends and overextends his famed wordplay. The effects are varied, including spectacular triumphs and laughable gaffes, often both in the same song. Take “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala.” Though the first lyrics are strong, they soon stray into contrition. In the first verse, Turner delivers the wonderfully suggestive and sultry line, “Makes me wanna blow the candles out / Just to see if you glow in the dark,” but he follows it with the painful “Took the batteries out my mysticism / And put them in my thinking cap.” Thankfully, the lyrics are generally evocative, and together construct a series of dark, intriguing images.

Darkness is a prevailing theme, which recurs in “Black Treacle,” a melancholy tale of an abuser of some unnamed substance. The effects of the narcotics on the unfortunate addict are reflected in the state of the night sky: “Somebody told the stars you’re not coming out tonight / And so they found a place to hide.” On this track and almost all the others, Turner takes his time, enunciating with sometimes startling precision that renders his thick accent clear as a bell. The intent is clear: the lyrics are meant to be savored. Gone are the Arctic Monkeys who sang rapidly of fluorescent adolescents, fishnets, and nightdresses. Heavy basslines, pounding drums, and guitar chords heavy with feedback all recall the band’s pre-“Humbug” bad-boy British rock sound, yet they’ve slowed down considerably. Though there is still something of the moody teenager on this album, Turner moves towards mid-tempos in an attempt to clarify the portraits of rambunctious youth he’s been crafting since the group’s very first release.

The album’s title track, “Suck it and See,” marks the group’s subtle departure from their typical testosterone-fuelled adolescent sound, producing a much-needed boost before the flaccid last track. The song starts out in the same vein as many of the other tracks on the album, going heavy on the loaded, creepy similes—“Your love is like a studded leather headlock”—but abandons lyrical flourish in favour of raw emotion and a sparer sound. The switch is refreshing and appropriate on the album’s penultimate track. Turner throws pontificating to the wind and belts, with little regard to meter, “You have got that face that just says, ‘Baby, I was meant to break your heart.’” It doesn’t sound hackneyed, but rather effectively candid.

However, the album too often neglects this sort of stylistic breakthrough in an attempt to cater to all tastes. “Library Pictures” sounds like a warmed-over track from “Favourite Worst Nightmare,” plodding along lifelessly for two minutes and 22 seconds. “That’s Where You’re Wrong” falls as flat as its title, and is a disappointment in its role as album closer.

On the whole, however, “Suck it and See” does best when it challenges the old formula. It is sure to please old fans on some of its more traditional tracks, too, though these seem perhaps less exciting than they once did. For all the title’s promise of scandalous swagger, it’s a surprisingly tame—albeit successful—attempt to stoke the fires of hype that have propelled their career. But the flashes of brilliance, coupled with more than enough of their tried-and-true musical instincts, redeem the album’s more cautious aspects.

—Staff writer Anjali R. Itzkowitz can be reached at aitzkow@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction.

CORRECTION: SEP. 6, 2011

The Sep. 6 article "Arctic Monkeys Outgrow Fluorescent Adolescence" included an incorrect title of an album by the Arctic Monkeys. It is "Favourite Worst Nightmare."

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