By R. Clifton Spargo and Anne K. Ream
These days there’s something slightly anachronistic about Arctic Monkeys—the thrumming, heavily compressed moodiness of the sound, song after song about time taking its toll, super-psychedelic lyrics that occasionally seem dug up from a time capsule circa 1968. All too happy to let producer James Ford hone a sixties vibe on their latest release, “Suck It and See,” the onetime darlings of indie rock seem to be daring critics to call them a “has-been” band. How far back were you thinking? How far back exactly would you like us to go?
For the launch of their fourth studio album, the Arctic Monkeys even managed to stir up an old-fashioned censorship controversy (if having a big-box retailer threaten to put a sticker over the words “Suck It” passes muster as censorship). One can almost imagine the boys from Britain mischievously choosing the title as a joke on American corporate and cultural sensibilities. “Suck it and see” is, after all, candy-inspired colloquial British for giving something —anything—a try. Presumably, that distinction was lost on the powers-that-be at the Walmarts of this world, who may have worried that the pseudo-sexual flavor of the album title would encourage impressionable American teenagers to experiment with a variety of behaviors that might actually involve sucking. Of course, nothing keeps rock ’n’ roll feeling relevant, in touch with its rebellious roots, like a censorship controversy generated by the small-minded monitoring of big business morality police. But few bands in rock history have generated more hype than Arctic Monkeys.
Ushering in what pop pundits called a “new era in music marketing,” Arctic Monkeys—who gave away CDs at their early concerts and selectively released free music online—were an internet sensation of such magnitude that they scored two No. 1 hits in the U.K. before the launch of their 2006 debut album. “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” sold over 100,000 copies on the first day of its release, and over 360,000 copies within the first week—the strongest record debut in British history. Even then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown tried to catch their wave, claiming to be a fan, though he was unable to name a single one of their songs. Not long thereafter, Arctic Monkeys displaced the brilliantly imploding Libertines in NME’s listeners’ poll, earning the moniker “best band in the U.K.” All the buzz soon made the transatlantic voyage: “Whatever” scored the second-fastest first-week-debut for an indie record in U.S. history, entering the Billboard charts at #24. But sales lagged thereafter, and the band’s US launch, however respectable, never caught up with its UK success.
More than a few American critics did their best to temper the hype, vowing not to get fooled again. No more faux British invasions for us. Hadn’t the critical establishment learned its lesson from Oasis, a strong-enough band but hardly the second rock ‘n’ roll coming they were acclaimed to be? Pitchfork and The New Yorker tagged the Arctic Monkeys a band “of their moment”—code for playing in the same musical sandbox as their contemporaries. Sure, one catches hints of The Strokes in the driving sequences of interlocking guitars, and a nod to the big-beat, hear-me-now energy of bands such as Franz Ferdinand or Kasabian at their best. But lead singer Alex Turner fast-sings with a percussive patter unparalleled in rock—the staccato of Turner’s punched-out words could give Eminem a run for his money—and while it’s true that early Arctic Monkeys sounded vaguely familiar, their dazzlingly tight songs managed to seem both inevitable and original, the perfect intersection of past and present.
Their music always feels urgent—Matt Helders’ drums locked in on Andy Nicholson’s bass, guitars by Jamie Cook and Turner relentlessly pushing songs into full-sprint mode. And with lyrics worldly-wise, if not quite world-weary, Turner proves an insightful observer of human behavior, one who manages to transform adolescent tales of love and longing—those twin peaks of rock ’n’ roll—into the basics of existential struggle. The clever quip of a young man under arrest for under-aged drinking, “I’m sorry, officer, is there a certain age you’re supposed to be?” becomes a metaphor for that part of everyone’s experience comprised of mistakes rather than endeavors. In their early songs, Arctic Monkeys indulge the naiveté of youth: they anticipate betrayals and adopt an ingrate’s attitude about their fans (“’Cause all you people are vampires”), recognizing that such adulation is conflicted and limited (“I know you’re certain we’ll fail”). Distrust of their own precocious fame also centers “Fake Tales of San Francisco,” a Dylanesque debunking of the nervous nightclub scene in which everybody performs by acting like everybody else. The song’s refrain is an improvised exorcism of bad behavior—“Get off the bandwagon/ And put down the handbook!”—and a pitch-perfect nod to Dylan (“Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters”) all in one.
Arctic Monkeys made all of the energy and attitude seem easy, but their early success came at a cost. Citing the stress of being in Britain’s most famous new band, bass player Nicholson opted out after the release of the EP “Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?,” a cause for concern in the original fan base. But the band’s next effort, “Favourite Worst Nightmare,” defied naysayers’ predictions of a “sophomore slump,” again charting at #1 on the UK charts, this time reaching as high as #7 in the States. Anchored by the relentless tempo of Helders’ drumming, the album was produced in the sort of haste that has led to many a great rock album—the first Ramones or Police LPs come to mind—and the record moved, in every sense of the word. Faster-paced, rawer and angrier than its predecessor, “Nightmare” showcased the band’s garage fierceness in songs such as “D is for Dangerous” and “Teddy Picker.” In the latter, the guitars chase a wrangled bass line laid down by Nick O’Malley, while Turner spews his trebled disgust for celebrity culture, lampooning everything from reality television to those hackneyed icons of British pop, Duran Duran. Turner relishes the role of hater in a world in which pop charts and other modes of commercial success are definitive—“Sorry, sunshine, it doesn’t exist/ It wasn’t in the Top 100 list.” Nihilistically apolitical but brilliantly anti-populist, Turner is at his best when expressing a manifesto-like bravado about his own band’s popularity and the flimsy criteria on which it is too often based. “Presuming that all things are equal/ Who’d want to be men of the people/ When there’s people like you.” The song’s last line might be a dig at the bandwagonesque embrace of Gordon Brown himself, whose name they almost used as a title for the second album.
But there was a softer side to the band’s many hypothetical disillusionments, resulting in some of the most sadly beautiful songwriting about lost time, aging and regret in recent memory. Time has always been one of the band’s favorite themes. Maybe all that anxiety about the fleeting spotlight made them better able to intuit what is eternally slipping from us all. Like the Rolling Stones before them—whose discography includes such classics as “Time Waits For No One,” “Out of Time” and “Dead Flowers,” three of the most inspired songs about mortality ever written—Arctic Monkeys look forward with an acute awareness of the inevitable backward glance. Even early songs are steeped in nostalgia, sometimes for events as recent as the night before. It’s hard to find a better song on time-as-taskmaster than the melodic “Fluorescent Adolescent,” with its mournful bass line, and its elegiac lyrics about the lost pleasures of casual sex. A young woman trades in her fishnet stockings for a nightdress, those wilder nights of hook-ups for the respectability of a monogamous relationship, but having discarded “all the naughty nights for niceness,” she finds herself in a common crisis, already nostalgic for the days when she “used to be a rascal.” One part ode for young lust or perhaps new love, another part cautionary tale against narrowing your choices too soon, the song reveals how quickly the present becomes the past: “The best you ever had/ The best you ever had is just a memory/ Where did you go?” In the layered finale, the repeated harmonizing line “You took a left off Last Laugh Lane,” rolling over, then under the lead vocals, is like an undercurrent of remorse. Somewhere, you can almost hear the crackle of the lightbulb of youth going out.
Who sings about regret and aging this early in life? Were Turner’s ambivalent odes to casual sex, first love and adultery (“Do the Bad Thing”) symptoms of a five-year itch? The answer may be found in Turner’s side project with Rascals’ front man Miles Kane. Kane and Turner came together to form The Last Shadow Puppets, releasing “The Age of the Understatement,” arguably the best album of 2008. For that record, producer James Ford’s orchestral arrangements drew on big-band jazz, the sounds of spaghetti westerns, and plenty of other sixties-inspired stylistic flourishes that make the album seem not quite of its era. In 2009 Arctic Monkeys were back with “Humbug,” and so pronounced was the change in style that the band’s career seems to divide into the pre- and post- Shadow Puppets eras. While Arctic Monkeys once sang about the past, they were now overtly revisiting rock’s most fabled era in their music. “Humbug” featured a handful of tracks recorded in the Mojave Desert, with its own rich psychedelic history, and the band cited influences such as Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Roky Erickson, the founder of 13th Floor Elevators, a revered sixties psychedelic band that rose to brilliance and imploded amid drug abuse. Added to the mix of influences was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, whose murder ballad, “Red Right Hand,” they began to cover in concerts. “Humbug”’s dark charms were dubbed “impressive but not infectious” by Spin magazine, and the consensus seemed to be that the band had managed to shrink its fan base with an album that refused to be true to their former musical form.
This may have been exactly what Turner and company wanted. In changing up sound and style, Arctic Monkeys, like Dylan, the Kinks and the Pixies before them, were following their muse instead of their early audience. Of course, the risk of alienating the faithful is real for any band. And perhaps the greatest risk associated with Arctic Monkeys’ newest release, “Suck It,” is that the album works far better if measured by the sum of its parts. For a band that made its name by crafting more than a few of the greatest singles of the last decade, this is quite a gamble. The absence of a standout album single was reinforced by the confusion that accompanied the March video release of the song “Brick by Brick,” which was followed almost immediately by the band’s assertion that the song wasn’t going to be the album’s first single, which was just as well. “Brick by Brick” begins with a strong-enough bass line, reinforced by driving power chords, but quickly devolves into a song as dull and oddly relentless as the title implies—whatever they’re building, we don’t want to rent, much less buy, it.
Arctic Monkeys have released a very good rock album in the absence of a great single, a choice somehow in keeping with their newly anachronistic groove. In interviews, Turner talks of reading Tom Wolfe’s classic 1965 book of new journalistic essays, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” and he fondly retells stories about his mother buying Beatles’ records before she owned a record player, just so she could take an album out of its well-designed sleeve and admire it. There’s nostalgia for the material object of the record in this anecdote, and also nostalgia for an era in which bands were defined by their albums, not their iTunes singles. Arctic Monkeys seem intent on mining rock history and recovering the glory of the album. The trick of cultivating the rock ‘n’ roll past so as to preserve the rock ’n’ roll present is certainly nothing new—The Ramones, in their fifties-inspired jeans and leather jackets, waxing elegiac over the purity of T. Rex, did it better than anyone. But in an era that rarely rewards rock ‘n’ roll humility, there’s something oddly touching about a band giving its predecessors their due.
For the time being—since this is a band likely to change sounds again and again—Arctic Monkeys’ sense of rock history is focused on the sixties. New songs like “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” and the album’s best track, “Suck It and See,” have the ringing, true-blue American optimism of the original West Coast sound (maybe those censorship stickers should come in the form of American flags). Even when waxing melancholic, the album is brightened by loop-da-loop doses of twelve-string guitars that might make Roger McGuinn of The Byrds sweetly sick with envy. Recorded in California, written in large part from Brooklyn, the album locates itself by era even more so than place. The lyrics shift from direct to psychedelically obscure on a dime, and Turner’s surrealistic symbolism finds renewal even in the darkest places. In ”That’s Where You’re Wrong,” the sky becomes a scissor, and the girl to whom he’s singing is “sitting on the floor with a tambourine/ crushing up a bundle of love.” Elsewhere he serenades “blue girls from once upon a shangri-la” (wasn’t the last time we heard shangri-las ringing true in rock in an ELO song from the seventies?). Even as Arctic Monkeys run the risk of dating themselves by channeling a time when they weren’t yet born, they neatly revisit and refashion the past for our moment. In a smoothed-out sexy baritone, Turner recalls the bluesy crooning of the great Colin Blunstone of The Zombies. But there’s a new maturity in the way Turner searches for and reflects on lost time. “Don’t take it so personally,” he affectionately advises a saddened lover, “you’re not the only one that time has got it in for, honey.” He’s not trying to take her mind off death or faded joys. He’s just reminding her, with witty pique, that no one outruns a setting sun. The evocative power of “Suck It” is summed up neatly in its faux-controversial title. Linger over the record’s sixties-vibing flavor long enough, and the surface sweetness gives way to a certain bite, taking you to a specific time and place that is really only as familiar as sounds you haven’t listened to quite closely enough.
Give Turner his due. No writer in recent memory has done a better job of crafting lyrics with both pop-poetic appeal and subterranean pull. This was made clear to us when we saw Arctic Monkeys two years ago, at Chicago’s Metro. They rocked and the crowd sang, the lyrics so well embedded in our collective consciousness that we knew every line. As is the case with all great live shows, the audience wasn’t so much watching the band as one with them. But after the show the lyrics took on a darker edge in memory, Turner’s words alert to the limits of rock ’n’ roll transcendence, anticipating the life we all must lead apart from the crowd: “And even if somehow we could have shown you the place you wanted/ Well I’m sure you could have made it that bit better on your own.”
Arctic Monkeys play Lollapalooza in Grant Park August 7 at 6pm, as well as an aftershow at House of Blues the night before, August 6 at 11pm.