Arctic Monkeys’ James Ford-produced fourth album is consistent. “Consistency” on the Josh Homme-helmed Humbug at times equaled same-same doldrums; on Suck It And See, the sustained “vibe” contributes to an ambiance and arc that remains interesting as it picks up steam. It’s not all that difficult figuring out why: In this case, less proves more. The band’s traded in Humbug’s layered, at times overburdened and fussy production (e.g. “cue the psychedelic choir!”) for a simpler, lighter sound, one that offers more space to showcase, unfettered, the nuances of Alex Turner & Co’s growth as songwriters. As promised, it’s poppier than its Black Sabbath-influenced predecessor, and we’re told much of it was recorded in live takes with Ford with fewer overdubs. As a result, it feels exceedingly clean, even when it’s loud, making Turner’s dirt and romantic sexiness that much more compelling. You know, contrast.
The 12-song collection establishes an intimate vintage feel with opener “She’s Thunderstorms,” one that lasts to the final notes of excellent closer “That’s Where You’re Wrong” with subtle variation. Nothing flashy here, but it works. The understated feel demands (or suggests) closer listening: Really, you’re going to want to pay attention to Alex Turner’s lyrics — “Now I’m out of place, and I’m not getting any wiser, I feel like the Sundance kid behind the synthesiser,” “Topless models doing semaphore wave their flags as she walks by and get ignored,” “Do you still feel younger than you thought you would by now or, darling, have you started feeling old yet / Don’t worry, I’m sure that you’re still breaking hearts with the efficiency that only youth can harness,” “Our love is like a studded leather headlock / your kiss, it could put creases in the rain / You’re rarer than a can of dandelion and burdock / and those other girls are just postmix lemonade,” “I poured my aching heart into a pop song / I couldn’t get the hang of poetry / That’s not a skirt, girl, that’s a sawed-off shotgun / and I can only hope you’ve got it aimed at me,” etc. — and the way he delivers them. Words become the focus over studio trickery.
So far you’ve heard the Matthew Helders-sung dud “Brick By Brick,” the heavier, more successful first single “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair,” and the mellower, sexier “Reckless Serenade.” (Suck It And See basically shifts back and forth between the latter two songs’ styles.)
Fans may recognize the prom-ready “Piledriver Waltz” from Turner’s solo Submarine EP. If you saw the guys on Jools Holland you also caught “Library Pictures” and The Hellcat Spangled Shalala” (along with live “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” and “Reckless Serenade“), so in the end, perhaps not too many surprises, but the playful (but affecting) ballad “Love Is A Laserquest” and swaggering, almost doo-wop-ing title track, and catchy jangle-rock closer “That’s Where You’re Wrong” (with a guitar part somehow reminiscent of vintage New order) are some of the strongest songs on the collection. (For whatever reason, the Monkeys are at their best on this one when they turn down the distortion and amplifiers.)
Beyond any particular track, it’s the approach that’s worth noting and recounting. The guys have always written good songs. By looking back to simpler times with the benefit of greater scope and experience, Suck It And See finds the Arctic Monkeys especially comfortable in their maturing skin, able to deliver the charisma and hooks that intrigued folks in the first place without too many distractions. It’s nothing mind-blowing, no, but it’s a solid collection of smart (alec) rock ‘n’ roll, one that gets better with repeat listens.
Suck It And See is out 6/7 via Domino.