Arctic Monkeys’ AM and Soren Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary (on nihilism and rock n’ roll)

About a week ago I finally picked up the latest record by the Arctic Monkeys, AM, (I still only buy CDs) and I have been completely transfixed by it, for a while in a way that I could not understand, as the music is not as uniquely and compellingly challenging as their other recent efforts (Humbug and Suck it and See). Gone are the quick tempos, cacophonic harmonies and jagged riffs, replaced now with swooning leads by Alex Turner, over more pentatonic riffs, falsetto backing-vocals and Dr. Dre-esque bass lines. Suffice it to say, it’s an amazing album that tries to incorporate the pop music of the moment, or at least, a recent moment, by taking inspiration from west coast hip-hop producers and making a groovy rock album with R&B flourishes.

Yet the most absorbing aspect of the album is no doubt Alex Turner’s wry British baritone delivery of the lyrics of a hopeless and helpless romantic, in the tradition of John Lennon, seemingly confused by his obsession with the women of his life. Turner seems so completely seduced by a woman (for the purposes of this entry, we’ll assume that the songs are not about more than one woman) that his audience cannot help but be moved by his weakness for her. His obsession with her is so genuinely and painfully presented that the listener becomes transfixed on Turner.

In effect, the seduced is himself a seducer. Whether just due to word association or not, Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary, in Either/Or, at one point came to mind, and on thinking further on the matter I was struck by the similarities of the stories, once the song order is rearranged to follow the plot of The Seducer’s Diary. Perhaps the message of the Seducer’s Diary can offer an insight into Artic Monkey’s AM.

AM and the Seducer’s Diary
While there is much to the Seducer’s diary, we see the tale of seduction begin as Johannes, the writer of the diary and a hedonist of sorts, observes Cordelia around Copenhagen running errands, and becomes infatuated with her. He spends time following her and getting to know her habits, likes and family, without revealing himself to her, such that he has decided that she will be his, though he remains a mysterious figure. The concluding song on AM, “I wanna be yours”, a tranquil tune with melodic lines that rise and fall like waves, matches this sort of mysterious and distant desiring. The lyrics are by British poet John Cooper Clarke, but perfectly fit Turner’s voice, tonally and lyrically, as he remarks somewhat cryptically “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner, breathing in your dust. I wanna be your Ford Cortina, I won’t ever rust […] secrets that I have held in my heart are harder to hide than I thought”. While mysterious in a different fashion than Johannes, the lyrics suggest a veiled desiring, as we are left to wonder what is the analogy that Clarke means with “breathing in your dust”, and so resembles Johannes’ efforts.

The next step of Johannes’ plan is introducing Cordelia to a boring and undesirable suitor, who will be used to acquaint her to the idea of dating but without her becoming interested in him. Johannes then swoops in and peaks her interest, pushing her to break off her courtship with the suitor for him. Similarly, in the slightly-swung “Snap Out of It” over a familiar descending blues-rock progression reminiscent of The Kinks, Turner puts his knack for colloquialisms to work and sings “I want to grab both your shoulders and shake baby/ snap out of it/ I get the feeling I left it too late, but baby snap out of it”. Just as Johannes shows himself to be superior to the suitor, Turner argues with the woman he cares for that she is with the wrong person.

Johannes then proposes to Cordelia, as was customary at the time, but develops their relationship quickly by building up her confidence and curiosity by showing himself to be helpless without her, and playing up their differences so that the polarity of their relations makes their chemistry more erotic. This step is crucial for Johannes, because it is imperative that her blossoming self-confidence makes her yearn for independence and rebellion, so that he may, in the next step, seduce her completely. This step is crucial to the complete seduction of Cordelia, and it is this part of the seduction that AM most thoroughly explores, in the songs “Do I wanna know?”, “R U Mine?” and “Arabella”. “Do I wanna know” is a powerful slow burner of a tune that opens the album with a melodic riff in unison with the vocals, over a stomping pulse, perfectly capturing the desperation of Turner’s love for this woman in his dejected and drunken ramblings to himself in the middle of the night. The imagery is clear as he slurs, “I dreamt about you nearly every night this week/ how many secrets can you keep? ‘cause there’s this tune I found that makes me think of you somehow and I play it on repeat / until I fall asleep / spilling drinks on my settee / […] baby we both know that nights were mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day / crawling back to you”. The next tune continues this theme with another and actually quite similar melodic riff, but at a quicker tempo and with the full presence of a talented drummer, suggesting a growing frustration at dependence on his love, begging that she ask him whether he wants to be with her completely, so that, we are left to assume, he will answer with a resounding yes. In “Arabella”, which begins with a Dr. Dre-like bass line but with a rocking chorus and bridge section, Turner sings, “Arabella, just might have tapped into your mind and soul, you can’t be sure […] she’s a modern lover, it’s an exploration, she’s made of outer space, and her lips are like the galaxy’s edge, and a kiss the color of a constellation falling into place” (for my money, some incredible imagery that brilliantly captures a certain sexy mysteriousness). These tunes reveal Turner to be completely miserable without his love, such that he is dependent on her, but of course in a way that is endearing for the audience, and for his lover, just as Johannes’ apparent dependence on Cordelia endears him to her.

Having fostered a desire for independence in Cordelia he then introduces her to his brand of aesthetic hedonism, living poetically in the sense of walking between reality and a world of his construction so that he will never become bored. He speaks ironically so that he is never committed to his words, achieving the highest freedom possible for such a poetic existence of immediateness. It is a certain brand of nihilism, and one that Johannes shares with Cordelia through diatribes about the folly of man, peaking her curiosity in a way that leads her to question rules of etiquette and social moralities. Turner reveals his fondness for hedonistic pursuits and the ideals of the value of living life in immediacy, disparaging and mocking social practices, in the songs, “Mad Sounds”, “No. 1 Party Anthem”, and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” On “Mad Sounds” Turner wistfully sings about the simple pleasures of the noise that is music, over an echoing guitar lick and church organ. During “No. 1 Party Anthem”, a brilliant 80’s piano ballad, replete with synth strings, Turner swoons ironically about the great importance of finding the girl at the party you’re interested in, singing, “So you’re on the prowl wondering whether she left already or not. Leather jacket collar popped like antenna, never knowing when to stop. Sunglasses indoors, par for the course, lights in the floors and sweat on the walls, cages and poles. Call off the search for your soul or put it on hold again, she’s having a sly indoor smoke, she calls the folks who run this her oldest friends, sipping her drink and laughing at imaginary jokes as all the signals are scent”. Turner has a talent for accurately capturing the dynamic of social events, absurdity and all, and like Johannes his ironic musings reveal a derision of social norms and conventions. The funky, Dr. Dre inspired, bass and synth heavy “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” further establishes Turner’s fondness for sensory and carnal pleasures at the expense of good manners.

With Cordelia’s sense of independence and rebelliousness grown and a kindled interest in living poetically through irony, she suggests that she and Johannes break off their engagement publicly and continue their romance privately, as they see fit, and unscripted by social customs. This is of course precisely what Johannes has been engineering, and he pretends to reluctantly agree. Freed from social conventions of prudence and etiquette Cordelia feels renewed and says that they should consummate their deeper and truer love. “Fireside” and “One for the Road” suggest secret love affairs like the one Johannes and Cordelia enter into. Over the pulsating bass line, ringing sixteenth notes of an acoustic guitar and stirring organ of “Fireside” Turner sings, “I can’t explain but I want to try. There’s this image of you and I, and it goes dancing by in the morning and in the nighttime. There’s all these secrets that I can’t keep, like in my heart there’s this hotel suite”. Turner insinuates a secret romance during the dreary and dark pop tune “One for the Road”, singing over another Dr. Dre-esque bass hook, “I’ve been wondering whether later when you tell everybody to go, will you pour me one for the road?” Ignoring social conventions is seen in the electric disco rock of “Knee Socks” where Turner sings, “The ghost in your room that you always thought didn’t approve of you knocking boots never stopped you letting me get hold of the sweet spot by the scruff of your knee socks”. (The tune features haunting guest vocals from the legendary Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age.)

With Cordelia breaking off the romance publicly in order for a deeper romance, Johannes takes advantage of her by having her and leaving her. While one might think of this as a simple mind game culminating in sex, Johannes sees the pinnacle of this seduction as the act of her giving up her belief in social norms for a deeper love that they will share. Johannes wanted more than her body for sexual pleasure; he wanted Cordelia’s soul, her hopes for and belief in true freedom and love through him. Johannes seduced Cordelia completely, taking everything from her. On the shuffling “I Want it All” Turner whispers over an ascending distorted guitar, “blind faith, heartache, mind games, mistakes, my sweet fireball, my sweet rigmarole, I want it all”. Perhaps Turner has relied on mind games for the blind faith of his lover to lead to heartache, just as Johannes did.

The Hidden Meaning of the Seducer’s Diary
The seduction of Cordelia by Johannes is a metaphor for the seduction by Socrates of his students. In The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard postulates that Socrates freed his students from the ethical norms and accepted truths of the time. Once freed the students looked to Socrates for truths to replace what had been lost but Socrates had none. He gave them nothing but a longing for truth, and they succumbed to his intelligence. Thus, it is said by Kierkegaard that Socrates turned his students into lovers in that they desired what they did not posses. Socrates used his intellect to seduce them into following him to nihilism and they were left to long for something that Socrates would not give them, truth. Johannes seduces Cordelia in that he frees her from untruths about ethics and society so she can make her decision to completely give her heart to him, but he leaves her, and leaves her with nothing, not even truths about ethics and social norms to live her life by.

The Hidden Meaning of Arctic Monkey’s AM?
Given the similarities in plot between AM and the Seducer’s Diary, and the hidden meaning of the Seducer’s diary, we might wonder if there is a hidden meaning to AM. Perhaps the message is that, try as he might to create meaning in his life through romancing, and pursuing pleasure whether by drugs and drink or by the joy of belittling social conventions, Turner finds that he cannot find a deeper meaning beneath it all. Maybe the title refers to those early morning hours when one cannot hide from the meaninglessness of it all, and that he was seduced by the idea of living for pleasure, for being an artist and rock and roll, but that late at night he can’t shake the feeling that it’s all without value. Thus, the songs aren’t about Turner’s seduction by a woman, but by the ideals of art and rock and roll, making the album penetrating in its exploration of the void of nihilism. Yet to consider these points he uses the medium of music and rock n’ roll, and in so doing, lures other followers to the ideals of rock n’ roll. Turner seems to be at once seduced by rock n’ roll but at the same time a method for rock n’ roll’s seduction of other listeners looking for meaning in their lives. He is like Kierkegaard’s Socrates, leading others to search for what they will never find.

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  1. #1 by ignacioggm on November 3, 2014 - 7:39 am

    Stunning essay (album review?). Not only for its particulars but because the whole enterprise of digging into messages and stories hidden in music and weaved through a “conceptual album” is something I am very attracted to! Have you done similar analysis with other albums?

    Regarding the particular case of AM I must say that I did enjoy the album, though, musically, I keep missing the wilder edge that the Monkeys used to deliver in their firsts works (for instance in “From the Ritz to the Rubble”… what an electrifying rock tune!). However, things resurface anew when someone contextualizes them as you have done here, even if it this could be only a valid interpretation among many others. I think I will give AM another listen.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on November 3, 2014 - 7:36 pm

      Thank you so much, I appreciate the kind words! I would venture to call this an album review, just with my sort of spin on an album review. Admittedly I think I’m stretching AM a little far to make it connect with Kierkegaard, but that was the fun and challenge of it. That is to say, I don’t think Turner had anything like what I’ve said in mind; I think he intended the songs to be about his seduction by a woman, not rock n’ roll, so I think there are plenty of other valid interpretations, many that could be better than the one offered here. Would love to see your interpretation of the album or another album on your page.

      AM is definitely very different from other arctic monkey records, in a way that I found underwhelming for a while, as you say, and for that reason hesitated in buying it, but when I finally bought the record and played it all the way through on my stereo I was deeply moved by it, and see it as the beginning of their mature period, if one might call it that.

      I haven’t done any other existential analyses of music besides a bit on Queens of the Stone Age’s Rated R. In a way I like that essay better, but mainly because Rated R is one of my very favorite records by my favorite rock group, and not so much to do with what I said about the record. You can find that here, if you’re interested:
      https://ausomeawestin.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/queens-of-the-stone-ages-rated-r-and-satire-censorship-and-stoner-rock/

  2. #3 by rung2diotimasladder on November 3, 2014 - 1:11 pm

    I love this review! I can tell you put a lot of thought into this. It’s been a long time since I read Either/Or and this was a nice way to get reacquainted with it.

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on November 3, 2014 - 7:41 pm

      Thank you very much, that means a lot! I don’t know if it was a lot of thought, but it took some effort to connect the album and the book, as they don’t really match up well, but it was fun, and an excuse to write about my favorite things: music and philosophy.

      • #5 by rung2diotimasladder on November 3, 2014 - 7:44 pm

        Hey it’s a creative venture. I’m all for anything that makes philosophy fun and accessible for others! I think it’s a cool idea. I’m also a big fan of music, so I might have to do an album-philosopher matchup someday. Brilliant!

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