Anyone who saw the aging English buzz band Arctic Monkeys perform at Lollapalooza earlier this month got a preview of the curveball coming their way with the group’s new disc: Rather than the frenetic energy of their signature single “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” which helped make their 2006 debut “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” the fastest-selling debut in British chart history, frontman Alex Turner and his mates reveled in far murkier and more sinister sounds.
As live party music, it was a bummer in the sunny festival setting. But as the sounds wash over me now in my cool, dark cave, the group’s radical shift from bouncy Britpop and angular dance-punk to a combination of those groves with the warlock soul music of Nick Cave and Scott Walker is absolutely enchanting, and welcome evidence that the group’s interests and ambitions far exceed a bit of flirty, fleeting fun at the disco on Saturday night.
Though the band’s choice of Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss) as producer seems bizarre at first blush, the king of hallucinogenic desert rock turns out to have been the perfect choice, given the back alleys the group chose to explore this time around. Sure, the fine line between exuberant good times and soul-threatening excess is familiar turf in rock ‘n’ roll (witness: Lou Reed’s entire career). Yet since Turner ranks beside Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker as the best modern heir of the time-honored U.K. school of lyrical sociologists founded by Ray Davies, Bryan Ferry and Morrissey, there are devilishly delightful twists and turns in every droning mood-piece and intriguing dungeon slow jam.
The second track, “Crying Lightning,” exemplifies the decadence and the wit. As a tom-heavy groove pounds with the fury of Sunday morning’s hangover and the guitar line beckons like a snake charmer’s pipe, Turner relates one of the several “twisted and deranged” encounters that fill these tracks, this one with a Lolita-like lass who “puffs out her chest like she never lost a war” while munching on her Pick ‘n’ Mix sweets and filling our hero with rude thoughts he knows he’ll regret, even if we love every minute of living through his mistakes.