What sort of record could rise above this dislocated half (and a bit) decade? Six years in which the government has striven to vastly widen the gap between rich and poor, sell off major national assets for personal profit, crush the disabled and desperate, raise the drawbridge on affordable education, protect their legions of historical paedophiles and drive musicians, artists and the working classes in general out of a capital city that’s now essentially a money-laundering foreign-investment tax haven with All Bar Ones. In which hatred, distrust and racism has split the nation in response to its own mistreatment by the cackling one-per-centers. In which the moody glowerings of The Horrors, Beach House, These New Puritans and Foals gave way to the slick, distant anti-emotion of laptop soul and we flung all of our troubles into Perthadelia’s narcotic psych haze. In which rock died, then twitched its muscles in the first sign of resurrection.
What sort of record could such a world take to its heart? One that reflects the times – PJ Harvey’s desolate war odes or Fat White Family’s bolshy grimace of the grotesque? One that offsets them – St Vincent’s warped modernist romances or Tame Impala’s druggy distractions? Look down the top ten in NME’s albums of the decade so far and every album either addresses some element of our turbulent times – war, alienated youth, sprawling consumerism – or tells you, in no uncertain terms, how brilliant Kanye West is. Arctic Monkeys may not be totally blameless in capitalist terms (they were among those names in the Libery tax avoidance scheme) but in an uncertain, divided era, the new dawn of ‘AM’ stood head and shoulders above all others as a steadfast totem of rock’n’roll resilience, reassurance and sheer melodic clout; a record that slapped you stoutly on the back and told you that, in rock music at least, everything was still right on track. The new dawn of Arctic Monkeys’ ‘AM’ was a sassy snarl in the face of a cynical ‘post-guitar’ age; proof that rock’n’roll was still capable of dragging itself out of the swamp and evolving into wild and exotic new species.
We thought we’d lost them for a minute, when they turned into Josh Homme Mini Me’s on 2009’s ‘Humbug’. But with ‘Suck It And See’ they rediscovered their melodic spangle and on ‘AM’ they became their own band once more; one hirsute catalogue model, one Royal Blood-loving drum god, one truly lovely bassist and one Yorkshire Elvis making what Homme would call “a sexy after-midnight record”. Modern rock had rarely been so exploratory; ‘AM’ took in R&B, psychedelia, desert bar-room Americana, Ziggy Stardust, blues rock, glitterball balladry, soul and fair old wads of Dr Dre drum machine beats to create a rich voodoo, a nocturnal world of witchy rock romance in which the sly, desert-dusty Wild At Heart seductions of ‘R U Mine’ and ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ – built around a wry and comical John Cooper Clarke poem – rub their cowboy chaps up against the sequinned ballroom tuxedo of ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’ and ‘Arabella’’s tassled biker leathers.
Mean Streets, Mexican cigarettes, quiff wax and Barbarella swimsuits – the Monkeys seemed a million miles from Sheffield here, but the tales of wasted phone calls, drunken lunges and late-night confessions were natural post-break-up progressions from the urban growing pains of ‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ and ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’. ‘AM’ sounded like the beginning of Arctic Monkeys’ imperial period and, with Royal Blood leaping from Helders’ t-shirt straight to the top of the charts, possibly for modern rock’n’roll too. Wake up, James Blake-alikes, you’re already dead.