“It’s the first time I’ve had a haircut…” Alex Turner told NME shortly after the release of Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Suck It And See’, which came out 10 years ago today (June 6). “Maybe I’ve been liberated by the haircut?”
Who would’ve thought that the refashioning of a previously feathered, ‘70s-style barnet would be so transformative? When Turner debuted an Elvis-inspired quiff at a gig in Texas in August 2011, it became clear that the creation of his band’s fourth album had ushered in a new, slick, uber-confident era of Arctic Monkeys.
Throughout a 20-song set, the frontman operated at almost-rock-god levels of showmanship, from high-kicks to swivelling his hips with some seriously filthy swagger. At the time, clips of the electrifying performance posted to YouTube incited widespread disbelief among fans who had previously posited that the Sheffield quartet thrived off a mildly awkward, no-fuss stage presence. It was a breathtaking reinvention – and one that proved that Arctic Monkeys were finally ready to blossom into the world-dominating stars they were always primed to become.
The build-up to ‘Suck It And See’ found Arctic Monkeys in a peculiar position. Coming out of the ever-polarising ‘Humbug’ era – which marked their most deliberately opaque, challenging, and disorientating work yet – they’d perhaps lost a touch of the star power that their first two albums granted them.
Released in August 2009, the band’s third record took an off-road diversion into twisted desert rock. It was a shocking sonic breakthrough, a collection that was propelled by squalling, horror-infused songs loaded with daring musical turns and progged-out riffs. The reasons that ‘Humbug’ was lauded by passionately defensive fans – the intricacy, the darkness, the knowing wink to its psychedelic influences – were the same reasons it attracted vitriol from others, and it unfairly emerged as a so-called slump.
In a 2011 interview with The Sunday Times, Turner said that making ‘Humbug’ “opened so many doors” for the band, and subsequently gave them the liberty to steer away from the spiky indie-rock of 2006’s whip-smart, record-smashing debut, ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ and its deeply world-weary follow-up, ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’. “It turned on a light in another room,” he said. But given the divisiveness that surrounded Arctic Monkeys from that point onwards, they had to be every bit as determined to prove themselves as they were at the start.
That mix of excitement and creative reinvention is something that would carry through to ‘Suck It And See’. These 12 songs overflowed with adventure, humour, warmth, and bore a looseness and impulsive spirit that we hadn’t ever seen from the often self-effacing Monkeys.
They played into the misplaced expectations that continued to be bestowed upon them by relishing the opportunity to wind people up: released “just for fun” and without a single word of explanation, lead single ‘Brick By Brick’ was a real red herring. The track received a lukewarm reception, which was quickly compounded by the unveiling of the LP’s featureless artwork – a plain white background no less – and how they seemed dead serious despite the hilarity of it all.
But in a twisted sense, this sludgy, straightforward belter was the perfect choice to introduce an album that was set to arrive freighted with outside pressure; much like the nonsensical ‘Library Pictures’, it was direct, funny and batshit brilliant – and it still sounds like exactly the kind of song you would make if no-one could tell you what to do. ‘Suck It And See’ is as freewheeling an album Monkeys have ever made, and perhaps the clearest instance in which a deep camaraderie fuelled the songs – they were cracking each other up, in real time. It was the most fun – and funny – they’d sounded since their gag-packed 2006 debut.
There was also a real tenderness to ‘Suck It And See’ that defied the piss-taking. In the spring of 2009, Turner relocated to New York City with his then girlfriend, presenter and model Alexa Chung. The pair made the move to support Chung’s burgeoning television career, and while she worked on an MTV chat show for six months, Turner wrote the majority of ‘Suck It And See’ alone from their apartment. The lyrics certainly explored that feeling of being away from the rest of the world: “I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what it is I need” (from ‘Reckless Serenade’) and the self-deprecating “I poured my aching heart into a pop song./ I couldn’t get the hang of poetry” (from the winsome the title track).
It was within this isolated period that Turner began to abandon the character-based focus of his previous work; for the first time, he started to put himself directly into the songs, with doe-eyed numbers such as ‘She’s Thunderstorms’ capturing the thrilling feeling of experiencing love in all its complicated glory. “She’s been loop-the-looping around my mind,” he sings in the swirling second verse. “Her motorcycle boots give me this kind of/Acrobatic blood.” It’s a sensitive and endearingly sincere line – a shot of effusive, Love Hearts-flavoured charm within a skyward pop track.
“With ‘Suck It And See’, Arctic Monkeys succeeded on their own terms”
Immediately after that, we get ‘Black Treacle’, a sickly sweet, gooey song (geddit?) of escapism and hedonistic wonder. And from there, ‘Suck It And See’ goes off in unexpected directions. There’s the aforementioned ‘Brick By Brick’ a blast of skull-rattling noise, followed by ‘The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala’, with a chorus so transcendent that it sounds suspended above a fluffy cloud of high-flying riffs. ‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’, meanwhile, boasts one of the most addictive earworm melodies Turner’s ever written. And that’s only the first half of the record! By making a persuasive bid at pop experimentation, the album masterfully accomplished its purpose: ‘Suck It And See’ was wholly more accessible than its predecessor.
There’s no better distillation of where Arctic Monkeys were at throughout ‘Suck It And See’ than the retro-looking video for ‘Evil Twin’, the title track’s B-side: to an almost comical effect, drummer Matt Helders plays up the fact that the band had started to address their previous discomfort with fame. He dons a leather jacket, rides a motorcycle and navigates a plush LA mansion – three elements of what the band described as “the American man thing”, all of which they had adopted throughout the album’s recording process. Here, they were still making sense of their transatlantic success and all its rewards. You don’t get to the rock’n’roll thrills and excessive hair gel usage of 2013’s groundbreaking ‘AM’ without first giving the West Coast way of living a test run.
But it wasn’t just about the band’s increasing visibility and confidence. With ‘Suck It And See’, Arctic Monkeys succeeded on their own terms; they finally figured out how to become fully-formed rockstars all while very intentionally making an album that they wanted to make. The knowledge that a thrilling, unpredictable future lay ahead was present in the music’s euphoria: “There are no handles for you to hold / And no understanding where it goes”, Turner repeats on the record’s glorious closer, ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’.
It’s our narrator’s realisation that this was a period of transition for the young and searching band – and ‘Suck It And See’ let the audience in on what that freedom sounded like. ‘AM’ – and world domination – awaited.