For an album that goes out of its way to promise nothing, ‘Suck It And See’ sure is burdened by expectation. Arctic Monkeys made their 10-out-of-10, fuck-you-we’re-the-future debut at just 19, filling the void left by The Libertines with a new testament all of their own. Barely a year later, they’d discovered how to rebottle lightning, and harnessed it into a follow-up every bit as accomplished as its predecessor. Two years after that came ‘Humbug’, the archetypal ‘difficult’ third album, an oblique desert odyssey that saw Josh Homme spiriting them out of their comfort zone and into darker, weirder terrain.
But fourth albums are trickier still. You’ve got to figure that’s why so many of the Monkeys’ close contemporaries – bands like Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers and Kaiser Chiefs – haven’t yet got around to making theirs. They represent a sort of existential litmus test: do you really have anything left to say, or are you simply counting down the royalty cheques to that Micronesian island chain you’ve had your eye on? Add to that the erroneous post-‘Humbug’ belief that Arctic Monkeys somehow owe us all a return to ‘form’, and the stakes for this one begin to stack up dauntingly high.
Shall we spoil the surprise? Oh, alright then. They’ve aced it, well and truly. To confirm everything you’ve read, ‘Suck It And See’ does not sound like ‘Humbug’, but that’s not why it works so well. It is immediate, tightly structured, laugh-out-loud funny and start-to-finish brilliant, but if you thought they were ever going to just roll over and write ‘Whatever People Want Us To Be, That’s What We Are’, you were deeply, desperately mistaken. This is a departure, not a return.
Let’s start with ‘Brick By Brick’, seeing as they obviously wanted us to. Its release now looks like an act of wilful perversity on the Monkeys’ part, intended to wrongfoot and mislead, to set the high-minded indie cognoscenti squirming at the sound of all those vulgar “rock’n’roll”s. As a three-minute psych-garage cockstrut, it is brainless, breathless fun, but as an album taster, it reeks of red herring.
The truth, in spite of what that song’s knuckle-scraping simplicity would have you believe (and even AC/DC would’ve added a bridge or two), is that this is Alex Turner’s finest, most carefully crafted collection of songs yet. With that in mind, we’ll assume that you’re already familiar with the mad Mephistophelean urgings of ‘Don’t Sit Down ’Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’ – awesome though it is – and move on. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and we’ve just made a doozy. Exhibit A is ‘She’s Thunderstorms’: announcing itself with Jamie Cook’s jangling cloudburst, it’s a ‘Sally Cinnamon’-esque portrait of some unknowable muse who’s been “Loop-the-looping around my mind/Her motorcycle boots give me this kind of/Acrobatic blood concertina”. It sets the tone for the rest of the album rather well; the melody may be gorgeous and direct, but the lyrics are a puzzle you’ll have to solve on your own.
Of course, there are those for whom even the smallest expenditure of thought is already too much, and who long for the days when Turner’s words led them by the hand. But playful ambiguity suits him well, especially on ‘Black Treacle’, which – with its languid, saucer-eyed strokes of guitar and opaque narcotic allusions – may well be Arctic Monkeys’ first paean to the wonders of weed. This is still an album in love with language, though perhaps the sound of it more than the meaning. In any case, we’ll take a spot of creative dot-joining over another bloody song about the loneliness of the indie disco wallflower any day.
Love – or occasionally lust masquerading as the same – seems to be a prevailing theme here. At least five (and a half, roughly) of these 12 songs are love songs of some description, ranging from the title track’s candy-striped naivety (“You’re rarer than a can of dandelion and burdock, and those other girls are just post-mix lemonade” swoons Turner over a melody that could’ve come straight off a C86 cassette) to the honey-tongued ingénue of ‘The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala’, who is never quite what she seems and whose “Steady hands may well have done the devil’s pedicure”.
Then there’s ‘Love Is A Laserquest’, whose reminiscences of an old relationship sound wistfully nostalgic on first listen, but belie a heart as gnarled and knotted with sorrow as an old tree root: “I’m sure that you’re still breaking hearts with the efficiency that only youth can harness”, Turner sighs bitterly, before later conceding the point that, “When I’m not being honest I pretend that you were just some lover”. In many ways, ‘Suck It And See’ is a very old-fashioned album. In an age where even Britpop corpse-botherers Brother trumpet their desire to collaborate with Odd Future, the Monkeys have made a record heavily indebted to late-’80s indie and a small group of white, male ’70s singer-songwriters: Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen. You couldn’t call it modern, but once those influences have been aggregated it does sound unique; sophisticated and strangely timeless pop music skewed at Dutch angles.
True to the topsy-turvy nature of ‘Suck It And See’, things end on a beginning. With just two chords, a spidery guitar riff, and Alex Turner’s impressionistic Polaroids of a still-embryonic relationship, ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ will leave you with a lump in your throat the size of a medicine ball: “There are no handles for you to hold”, he warns, “and no understanding of where it goes”. Maybe not for us, but the band know exactly where they’re going. Four albums in, and they’ve yet to shed so much as an ounce of purpose or inspiration. “You’re not the only one that time has got it in for”, is the album’s final assurance, a reminder that they’re as fallible as the rest of us. On form like this, however, that just doesn’t ring true.