The Guardian is one of Britain's most respected newspapers. Their music supplement is, for the most part, very official and refined. Not for them to carelessly throw around ridiculous NME-worthy statements and place unbelievable expectations upon the heads of a bunch of 19 year olds, surely?
"In a few week's time, it seems likely that "When the Sun Goes Down", the third single by Arctic Monkeys, will follow its predecessor straight to number one. The teenage quartet have become fixed in the national conscience with such speed that it's hard to react to this prospect with more than a shrug. In the past six months, the media have parroted the tale of their rise to stardom so often that there can be hardly anyone who is unaware of its salient points. The only surprise was that it didn't turn up in the Queen's Christmas speech: "At this time of yarh, one's thoughts turn to the Commonwealth, and also to Arctic Monkeys, who cultivated a fanbase by making MP3s available on the internet, and before they had even released a proper single, managed to sell out London's Astoria."
Hype. It's nothing new, especially in the British music press, which has for the last few years been resembled a swarm of drooling inbred morons even more than the American equivalent. Think Rolling Stone is bad? Try reading the NME - a magazine that has now gone roughly 3 years since the last issue that didn't mention either Jack White or Pete Doherty within the first 4 pages.
Still, it's been a pretty damn long time since we saw hype on this level. In fact, you need to go back to 2 albums that share more with Whatever People Say I Am
than just hype to find the last time any band had it this bad (good?). All British. All Northern. All debut albums. I'm talking, of course, about Oasis' Definitely Maybe
and The Stone Roses' self-titled.
I'm far from the first to make that comparison - in fact, it's beginning to get irritating. The thing is, though, it's a comparison I feel needs to be made, because it highlights just where The Arctic Monkeys are different. This is the only record of the three to not be proclaiming 'the saviour of rock' because, well, rock does't need saving. In the past 12 months, Britain has had number 1 singles delivered by Sterophonics ("Dakota"), Oasis ("The Importance of Being Idle" and "Lyla"), U2 ("Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" and "Vertigo"), and, though they're not strictly rock as such, Gorillaz ("Dare").
And that's where these guys reveal the true source of their hype - they're not the start of anything, they're the culmination of it. British rock has been on the rise for the better part of 5 years now, starting with (ironically) the breakthrough of The Strokes. Something's been missing, though; true stars. Sure, Franz Ferdinand come pretty damn close, but theit arty detachment from reality is just holding them back from the brink. That's where The Arctic Monkeys fit in. Here's a band who combine Mike Skinner's lyricism (up until now, a massively under-exploited breakthrough in British music) with the kind of propulsive, dancefloor-friendly post-punk that made Franz Ferdinand such an instant success.
That's actually somewhat scary. Oasis and The Stone Roses has musical expectations, sure, but their commercial expectations didn't match up to this. In 1989 and 1994, days dominated by either acid house or boy bands, we weren't sure whether rock music could break the top 5. Not only do we know right now that rock music can, this very band have already had a #1 single - TWICE. Oasis didn't do that. You can't help but feel that if this album fails to sell a million copies by the end of the year (that's nearly double platinum in UK terms), it'll have 'underachieved', according to music critics, tabloids, and fans alike. 300,000 had already shipped to stores for release day.
The Monkeys are, clearly, all too aware of the hype that threatens to kill them before they're even given a chance. Not only did the video for the aforementioned shock #1 smash "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" start with Alex Turner stating 'Don't believe the hype', but the album begins with this shockingly honest declaration - 'Anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment.' That might seem self-defeating or self-deprecating, but it's actually indicative of the casual arrogance and swagger that's already crucial to their explosion into stardom - something they DO share with Oasis and The Stone Roses. It's that that sets them apart from their peers right now - Bloc Party aren't this cocksure, Franz Ferdinand aren't this easy-going, Hard-Fi aren't this naturally charismatic, and so on. It's also, obviously, a statement of intent, just in the same way the album's utterly bland here's-one-of-our-mates artwork is - ignore the hype, just listen.
Luckily, and almost unbelievably, the music does live up to the hype. It's catchy as ***, funky, and often impossible not to dance to. There's just enough variation to stop things getting boring, too, though they only once stray too far from a basic template - drums that are either subtly intrciate or pounding away like a neanderthol, or Meg White kicked up about 25bpm; guitars that pop, fizz, stab, and deliver some great counter-melodies, but never interfere with the all-important rhythm; basslines that drive songs home, and, on occasion, turn a song from 'very good' to 'great'.
Alex Turner's undoubtedly the Unique Selling Point, though. His lyrics are alternately oddly moving, straight-talking, and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Sometimes, all three. The album's most attention-grabbing lyric is found on the final track, "A Certain Romance" - 'There's only music so that there's new ringtones'. Damn funny, at first. But then an unseemly Crazy Frog-shaped cloud begins to appear, and you realise the undercurrent of that image - large swathes of Britain's youth are so disaffected by music today - music that, for the most part, doesn't really say anything to them - that a song can be qualified by how well it translates into an alarm.
Other attention grabbers abound. 'All that's left is the proof that love's not only blind but deaf' is becoming a bit of a mantra in my student union in an homage to "Fake Tales Of San Francisco" - the song deals with an awful band only liked by one of the band member's girlfriends. That's not even the best line in the song, either - 'You're not from New York, you're from Rotherham' is a put-down worthy of hometown hero Jarvis Cocker himself. And, though Turner has been compared to Pete Doherty far more than he ever should have been (it's only "When The Sun Goes Down" that resembles either Babyshambles or The Libertines at all), he draws a line between his working class tales and Doherty's flights of vague fancy on "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" - 'There ain't no....Montagues or Capulets - just banging tunes and DJ sets'. Turner twists the position that his band have found themselves in in circles in "Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong" too; the song refers to music critics. 'Cause all you people are vampires, and all your stories are stale, Though you pretend to you'll stand by us, I know you're sure that we'll fail'.
Think Turner's heavily Northern accent might get annoying over the 40 minutes? It doesn't. In fact, it becomes endearing after repeat exposure - just like Mike Skinner, there's something charmingly unaffected about both his accent and his stories. Both of them cover similar territory, actually - nights on the piss and on the pull (for "Fit But You Know It", read "Still Take You Home"), fights with girlfriends (you can kind of substitute "Dry Your Eyes" for "Mardy Bum", too, though it's a stretch) - the world that Arctic Monkeys paint is a life devoid of inspiration, where people live for either the next paycheck or the next shag - much like Skinner's. Just like Skinner, too, they mock almost everything they see, but only because there's not really any other option; if you can't laugh, you cry, and ultimately, they're as flawed as their characters in that society forbids them from showing that weakness. Seen an episode of Shameless
? Then you've heard an Arctic Monkeys song - metaphrically, if not literally.
If the Monkeys are derivative - and that's the criticism that been levelled at them most - Mike Skinner is the artist they seem to turn to most for inspiration. But then, musically they're very different, and this vocal style and way wih a story translates brilliantly into a rock context. Observation rather than criticism, then? From this quarter, absolutely.
Taking the album on a song-to-song level reveals that there's several great songs here - "The View From The Afternoon", "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor", "Fake Tales Of San Francisco", "A Certain Romance", "Mardy Bum" - and no bad ones. The only real mis-step is "Riot Van", which is far too self-conscious and boring. Amongst the other ballads here, it reveals itself as far too homogenised, too - it's arguably the only song here that could have been produced by any other band. It is, however, over in just 2:15.
Arctic Monkeys may or may not be the future of rock'n'roll. Probably not, if the truth is told. They're not the best rock band of the decade, this is not the best debut of the decade, and they're not the new Oasis/Stone Roses/Pulp/Blur/Strokes/whoever else you've heard them compared to. It's not perfect, and it's not a masterpiece. But they come close. Really, really close. And what do you really expect from them, anyway? Don't come at this like it's some kind of holy artifact, just treat like a rock record. Because it is one of the best (though not quite the best) rock records in recent years.
Whether their second record will be (What's The Story) Morning Glory
or The Second Coming
will be fascinating to see. As for now, this is a massively entertaining, fun, engaging, consistent, wholly impressive debut.
Within The Genre - 5/5
Outside The Genre - 4/5
Recommended Downloads -
I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor
Fake Tales Of San Francisco
When The Sun Goes Down
The Jam - Setting Sons
Pulp - Different Class
The Streets - Original Pirate Material