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Arctic Monkeys I Suck It and See (Domino)

A gang of surly teenagers gives away music for free online, makes light of the industry’s established byways, and somehow manages to sell records at a time when overall album sales continue to dwindle. It’s a familiar storyline these days, but when Arctic Monkeys’ precociously jaded Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not became the fastest-selling UK debut ever, back in early 2006, the idea of a “MySpace band” was still something new. Now, with News Corp. reportedly trying to sell MySpace and other sites such as Bandcamp and Tumblr taking the struggling social network’s place in music think-pieces, the Sheffield band’s latest is a throwback in a more classic sense.

Suck It and See, the Arctics’ fourth and most rewarding album so far, is not music to blog to. Listen while updating your Facebook status or crafting the perfect tweet, and you’re probably going to miss something crucial. Actually, you’re probably going to miss something anyway: For instance, the title, while no doubt partly intended as a provocation toward American audiences, is mostly just easily misunderstood Brit-speak for “give it a try.” But the record itself brims with endlessly replayable details, some goofy and some poignant, both in frontman Alex Turner’s always keenly observed lyrics and in the band’s ever-proficient music, the latter of which ranges here from muscular glam-rock to chiming indie pop balladry. Cowboy movies and humdrum observations about the weather conceal thoughtful contemplations on romance and coming of age.

“Oh, in five years’ time, will it be, ‘Who the fuck’s Arctic Monkeys?’” That was Turner five years ago. Fittingly, Suck It and See is something of a reboot for the band. 2007 sophomore effort Favourite Worst Nightmare, the Arctics’ first album with Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford producing, found the group enriching its palette both emotionally and sonically, while musically toughening up. 2009′s Humbug paired the group with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, leading to predictably brawny, unwound results. Elsewhere, Turner’s once-shouty voice ripened into a honeyed croon with 2008 side project the Last Shadow Puppets, and his recent solo soundtrack for Richard Ayoade film Submarine allowed him to unplug. The new record, produced by Ford but with a burly backing vocal from Homme on the churning “All My Own Stunts”, sounds informed by each of these experiences, distilling them all into the unit’s next phase: confident, melodic, and as expertly played as ever.

Turner has been talking up country greats Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Patsy Cline as lyrical influences on this album, along with Nick Cave, the Byrds, Nick Lowe, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen. When he’s at his clearest (which is still pretty heavy with ambiguities), Suck It and See has a bleak sense of humor to prove he’s not kidding. That’s fleshed out by bandmates whose tastes run more toward Black Sabbath stomp or Stooges aggression. Musically, drummer Matt Helders remains the Arctics’ not-so-secret weapon, capable of lizard-brain freakouts or deceptively innocent waltzes; Sean Combs has invited him more than once to sit in with Diddy Dirty Money.

So hardly a verse goes by without an instant quotable or two, and the backing is elegant enough that at first you might not even notice. “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”, a swaggering boogie worthy of its title, lists off dangerous ideas that are all presumably less dangerous than sitting down (“Do the Macarena in the devil’s lair”– you know, the usual). Plucky ode “Reckless Serenade” has a hell of an opening line: “Topless models doing semaphor/ Wave their flags as she walks by and get ignored.” Other times, Turner keeps his cards so close to the chest that trying to puzzle out literal meanings would probably be impossible, though his disconnected imagery is usually still pretty compelling. These songs tend to be heavier, more fuzzed-out: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid nod “Black Treacle”, which envisions “belly-button piercings in the sky at night” (how careful are Turner’s word choices? This careful: “Now it’s getting dark, and the sky looks sticky/ More like black treacle than tar”); “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala”, which juxtaposes memorably impressionistic verses with searing, yes, sha-la-la-la choruses; “She’s Thunderstorms”, as tempestuous and captivating as its female subject. Only jagged, mathy “Library Pictures” fails to hold interest.

For a band whose breakthrough hit was called “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”, Arctic Monkeys have always been perhaps unexpectedly great at gentler moments. On that score, Suck It and See is a thing to behold. The heart-wrenching “Love Is a Laserquest” addresses a lost love every bit as unsparingly as past Arctics slow burners “Do Me a Favour”, “Cornerstone”, or “A Certain Romance”, picking up a lyrical theme that also runs throughout an album by a very different band, Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues: “Do you still feel younger than you thought you would by now?” Finale “That’s Where You’re Wrong”, in the steadily escalating two-chord format of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, furthers this concern with the passing years: “Don’t take it so personally, honey/ You’re not the only one that time has got it in for.” Now there’s something you don’t see every blog-second: a group that grew up too fast, aging gracefully.

Marc Hogan, June 9, 2011