Remember them? You know, the ones who were like, from England. They had the words by that one main guy, and they were all about going out and drinking and taxis and one of them had the bit about the bouncer. Still nothing? Really? There’s no way you could have forgotten that fast. It was only back in 2006 that Arctic Monkeys were official media darlings, with countless outlets breathlessly repeating the particulars surrounding the release of their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. You can’t have avoided it; there are no doubt Buddhist monks living in the frosty embrace of the Himalayas who, despite their best efforts to pursue a life of contemplation free from the material trappings of the modern world, can still recount to you in some detail that album’s internet-fuelled rise to become the UK’s then highest ever selling debut album. If you were to venture deep into the dark heart of the Amazon you could find – oh, you’re getting something? Yes, the album with the Adam Sandler lookalike on the front. Yes, the ones from England, that’s what I said. So we can be certain that you knew of them once, then. Maybe you listened to their first couple of albums; maybe you even had one of their songs set as your ringtone. But, oh fickle Listening Public, you stopped listening, and you stopped caring, leaving it to people like me (you know the type) to nurture the flame until the inevitable reunion tour of 2030 when you will fork out for tickets and holler for the hits, providing we aren’t all still living with our parents. But why? Why did this happen? What has become of the Arctic Monkeys?

They Look Weird Now

Crucial to the appeal Arctic Monkeys’ debut album was the whole back story that came with it; humble local lads write some songs about life in their home town of Sheffield and make it big through good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. The lyrics were local, lead vocalist Alex Turner sang with in the thick local accent, and for the face on the album cover they didn’t go further than a friend of the band. They radiated ‘authenticity’, that elusive notion so prized in rock circles, and this was no more evident than in the way they looked. With their short, defiantly un-musicianlike haircuts and nondescript tees and polo shirts, they looked like the kind of people they sang about. Then they spent some of their new funds on clothes. And stopped cutting their hair. And stopped shaving. It was a slow and subtle process, but the four unassuming hometown lads of 2006 have over the last five years transformed (with the exception of their drummer) into clearly identifiable rock and rollers, with all the leather and hair that comes with the territory. Why is this significant? Well, for the rock obsessive such as myself, it’s an important indicator – they’re changing. It would no doubt have been tempting, given the monumental success of their debut, for the boys to go the AC/DC route and simply remake the same album for the next thirty years. Instead, with each of their three albums since they’ve progressively altered their distinctive sound, and just as their music got harder and darker, informed by the likes of Black Sabbath, so have such bands influenced their sartorial. They look different because they sound different. People do not like this.

Their New Albums Suck

Well, not really. But they are the kind of albums that lead people to, having gotten the torrent and  listened to it once on mp3 playing from their laptop speakers, determine that it possesses no singles and thus declare it to be Shit, and that It Sucks. That was probably most evident on Humbug (2009), their third album, and their densest and darkest to date. To be sure, it didn’t possess any real singles, despite the clear (and misguided) effort to polish ‘Crying Lightning’ up to a mainstream-friendly sheen. The rest of the album was occupied with fuzzy guitars, carnival organ, and a lead vocal closer to a Jim Morrison-esque croon than the bratty yelp heard on the boys’ debut. The taut, dissonant blasts of angular riffery remained, but the whole exercise was more downbeat, more sullen. When the band did let it all hang out to bash out some chords, it wasn’t through a pop-punky raveup as in early tracks like ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, but instead a volcanic rumble, one that generated almost as much tension as it released. So not a pretty album then, but an engrossing one. Their latest, Suck It And See (2011) has seen them change once again, retaining at some points the coiled aggression of its predecessor while embracing a newfound warmth and vaguely melancholic romanticism. Turner croons even deeper over chord progressions that sound borrowed from a Connery-era Bond soundtrack, backed by a band somehow both brittle and luminous. It is this album that contains ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’, arguably their most beautiful song yet, and the one that best embodies Suck It And See’s signature sound; something like standing in an empty, run-down cathedral while a broken AM radio blasts Morrisey-on-steroids. So yeah, they’ve changed. They don’t sound like they did on their first album; that one was a bolt from the heavens, as close to perfect as to make no difference, and there was no sense in trying to repeat it. Leave mindless repetition to the AC/DCs of this world. Instead they’ve worked their way through to a sound that, while less immediate than that of their debut, is just as distinctive, and in some respects a richer listening experience.

The Lyrics Make No Sense

Okay, I’ll give some ground on this one. The lyrics on Whatever People Say I Am were absolutely incredible. Like, seriously, the best that anyone has ever come up with and ever will in any genre, concerning any topic. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but they were pretty damn good. They were the perfect combination of wit, anger, romanticism and observation; they could absolutely destroy Bruce Springsteen or Lou Reed any day of the week. Seriously, this is the album which contains the lines ‘can see it in his eyes / that he’s got a driving ban / amongst some other offences’, and ‘there’s only music / so that there’s new ringtones’, not to mention the breathless spiel about bouncers that begins ‘From The Ritz To The Rubble’. A huge part of the first album’s distinctiveness was in its pointed, observational, sometimes satirical style, and over the course of four albums this quality has steadily drained out of the Arctic Monkeys’ music. It’s sad to see it go, but perhaps necessary if the band were to escape self-parody; having left the small town life and entered rock mythology, any attempts to recapture that lyrical style would no doubt ring false, though we would arguably be fooled initially, such is Alex Turner’s lyrical skill. That skill has not left him on the later albums, but instead been applied to imbuing more personal songs, some of them dark and some romantic, with a rich, bizarre imagery. At some points, particularly on Humbug, it is difficult to tell much of what Turner is trying to say, other than that he finds something blackly humorous. However the Arctic Monkeys newfound vagueness is no worse than 99.99% of rock acts, both past and present (Interpol is a particular offender in this regard), and the lyrics full of such strange and memorable imagery that Turner remains a cut above the rest. Skimming the lyrics to a track like ‘Crying Lightning’ reveals some choice selections of impressionist absurdity; ‘the next time I caught my own reflection / it was on its way to meet you’, ‘with folded arms / you occupied the bench like toothache / stood and puffed your chest out / like you’d never lost a war’. Yes, it would be nice if one day Turner would try his hand at some more everyday observation a la ‘A Certain Romance’, but as it is, the lyrics are still a cut above.

So There

Maybe there’s no real point in this. If you’re the kind of person who is inclined to agree with the points raised here then you’re mostly likely to have remained faithful to the lads from Sheffield; maybe this is just preaching to the choir. Certainly one self-indulgent praisefest isn’t going to make the mainstream listening public jolt upright and declare; ‘by God, those Arctic Monkeys have still got it after all! Let’s go murder lil’ Whatever-we’re-listening-to in his sleep, and then legally purchase some CDs!’ But I want it on the record. I want it on record that some people still care about the Arctic Monkeys, not because we sit and wait in hope for that second bolt of lightning, but because the band continues to make music that we love.  It may be nestled deep within this forgotten corner of the internet, but it’s recorded here, and here it will remain, at least until my account expires.

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