In an age where prime demographics prefer the short-attention-span delights of cycling through assorted singles on an MP3 player to the old-fashioned album experience and music stores are on the verge of extinction thanks to the convenience of internet downloads, rock groups are forced to take considerably less orthodox paths toward securing commercial success, and more often than not this means circumventing proper channels altogether.
Such was the case with the Arctic Monkeys, a rock group with punk overtones who managed to parlay their flavor-of-the-week success story into instant superstardom. The group first established a name for themselves by releasing their demos via the internet, cultivating a healthy following that became progressively larger as time passed until the media could no longer ignore this unconventional success story. This added attention only served to make the band's fanbase larger until major labors began courting this internet sensation.
The Arctic Monkeys rejected some of the more prominent British labels, instead opting for a more hip, indie brand so that they could retain full creative control over their work. This served to add to the ever expanding mythos of the band, a group that had managed to achieve more fame without releasing an album than many groups with extensive discographies.
Thanks to this cult following the band's first full-length outing, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, became the fastest selling debut in British history, a commercial triumph that was only compounded by the absurd hyperbolic accolades that were showered upon the album. According to NME the CD is the fourth greatest British album of all time, effusive praise that, while hardly warranted, still helped catapult the LP to these lucrative heights.
Whether or not this unusual career path will become par for the course in the new millennium, it's clear that the Arctic Monkeys managed to build tremendous hype for themselves without the aid of a major record label, earning them a unique place in the annals of rock and roll history. This raises the inevitable question: is there indeed substance behind all this hype, or is this just a modern iteration of The Emperor's New Clothes?
As invariably seems to be the case with such questions, the answer is lies somewhere between the two extremes. The Arctic Monkeys have talent, but by no means does their music merit the level of adulation afforded it by a plethora of trend-hopping critics and legions of listeners eager to jump on the bandwagon.
At heart the Arctic Monkeys are yet another guitar-rock band, the latest product of the phenomenon that spawned the likes of The Strokes, The Libertines and Franz Ferdinand. There's little to differentiate the Arctic Monkeys from their contemporaries in this garage rock movement, making the extent of their success somewhat baffling. As neither the best nor the worst act to emerge from this scene, the Arctic Monkeys are ultimately rather unremarkable, and their punk tendencies fail to distinguish them from their brethren in any meaningful ways.
The band's main strength is their facility for conjuring memorable, catchy riffs. Nearly every track on the album boasts a solid riff, and while they may not be that elaborate, complex or inventive they're still worthy additions to the vaults of rock and roll riffage.
The album also contains some catchy vocal melodies, and these hooks are often in a surprisingly poppy vein. From the infectious, dexterous and accelerated rhyme scheme of From The Ritz To The Rubble to the sneering delivery of Dancing Shoes, the Arctic Monkeys are more amenable to pop stylistics than most punk-rock acts, though this may simply be an indication of the shallowness of the band's punk pretensions. The band's punk dynamic seems to be more about hip posturing than any real convictions, but in this case that's certainly a good thing, as much like The Strokes, a group infamous for feigning their street cred, the quality of the Arctic Monkey's songs is dependent on their pop side.
The Arctic Monkeys have also garnered a lot of positive attention for their lyrics, as critics will frequently ascribe a kind of blue-collar eloquence and grass-roots intelligence to the band's wordplay. I certainly deviate from the critics in this department, however, as for the most part I find the band's lyrics woefully bereft of wit, insight or intelligence. While many have praised them as storytellers, their 'stories' betray little in the way of depth or sophistication, and I'm seldom wooed by their superficial portrayal of prostitution (When The Sun Goes Down) or their simplistic tableau of police hypocrisy and brutality (Riot Van). Basic allusions to Romeo And Juliet (I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor) hardly constitute erudition, nor does the band's working-class image justify the extent of the primitivism and heavy-handedness of the bulk of their lyrics.
While I've established that the band is capable of conjuring strong melodies, they don't always deliver in this area, as the album is unfortunately erratic. Luckily some of the weaker numbers are at least partially redeemed by catchy riffs, and indeed the band's vast arsenal of riffs is in many respects the album's saving grace.
The album is bogged down by another liability, however, namely its lack of diversity. There are few detours from basic guitar-rock, and when the band attempts something different they tend to go even further awry (as demonstrated by the clumsy, enervated Riot Van). This is simply a symptom of how limited a group the Arctic Monkeys are, a fatal flaw that will likely curtail any attempts at musical progression or development on their part.
Despite these faults, however, the album can be quite enjoyable, if a little one-note. The first single is indeed the best cut, namely the hyper-catchy I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. From its thunderous opening to its superb vocal melody the track captures all of the band's strengths, a brilliant showcase of everything positive that the group have to offer.
There are plenty of other strong tracks as well, from the opener The View From The Afternoon to Still Take You Home, and there's little that I would decry as being outright bad or offensive, making for a consistently enjoyable listening experience for those who can overlook the band's defects.
Thus Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not is a solid debut, but nevertheless one that paints a bleak picture of the band's future. While normally one would say that a debut of this caliber demonstrates tremendous potential, in this particular case it seems clear that the Arctic Monkeys are far too narrow in breadth or scope to produce consistently compelling material, leaving themselves little room to grow or evolve as long as they operate in the cramped confines of their style of choice. The album basically displays all that the band has to offer, and if that's the case then the Arctic Monkeys are a very limited group indeed.
Having just released the fastest selling debut album in British history, the Arctic Monkeys found themselves at the zenith of the modern rock and roll hierarchy, leaving them with a very definite conundrum, namely how to remain in their much coveted current position.
In the case of Alex Turner and company the band opted for the route that Franz Ferdinand took when confronted with a similar dilemma, namely rushing out a second album to capitalize on their undeniable momentum before their fifteen minutes of fame expired.
This choice was doubtlessly fraught with tension and anxiety. The NME had already declared that the Arctic Monkeys' sophomore effort was the most anticipated second album in rock history, an assertion that, while certainly comically hyperbolic and absurd, surely put some added pressure on a group that was already plagued with worries as to how they were going to secure their spot on the charts.
The Arctic Monkeys managed to overcome at least one hurdle, as Favourite Worst Nightmare, the band's follow-up to the uber-successful Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, is on roughly the same level as their debut. This differs from the analogous situation with Franz Ferdinand, whose hastily slapped together second outing, You Could Have It So Much Better, was markedly inferior to their eponymous first venture.
The problem, therefore, is that Favourite Worst Nightmare is an album with few surprises. As I'd remarked in my previous review, the Arctic Monkeys betrayed little in the way of potential on their debut, as they're an inherently limited rock outfit. The band have a set formula that they adhere to, and while they acquit themselves admirably in the execution of this style it makes for a predictable experience that cultivates little in the way of enthusiasm or excitement.
Favourite Worst Nightmare is indeed largely a rehash of Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, and while this was to be expected given its rushed nature and the chronological proximity to their debut it doesn't change the fact that there's little to recommend the album over its predecessor.
The issue that constantly surfaces is the band's innately limited nature. Favourite Worst Nightmare once again features some catchy vocal melodies, but they only serve to expose the group's limited arsenal of ideas; whereas almost any given Sparks album boasts a plethora of inventive, imaginative and unforgettable vocal melodies, Favourite Worst Nightmare takes a decidedly less inspired approach, sporting a generic array of vocal melodies that consistently abuse the same tired tricks, from basic accelerated delivery to predictable syllable stresses. These techniques may be evergreens, but they're invariably implemented in exactly the same way ad nauseam, and unsurprisingly the batch of vocal melodies that don't repeat on this album can be traced back to the band's debut.
Riffs have always been the crutch that the Arctic Monkeys' albums have rested upon, the saving grace that redeems the band's many defects. The fact of the matter is, however, that Alex Turner fails to measure up to the likes of Tony Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore, penning riffs that are decidedly more basic and derivative than his past betters. They still constitute the album's greatest asset, but in the long run only a modicum of riffs are truly remarkable, and while they can certainly be enjoyed in the short term few have much in the way of staying power or longevity.
Many critics attribute a certain dichotomy to the Arctic Monkeys' work, casting their albums as bipolar affairs with intelligent lyrics and a basic, raw musical foundation at opposite ends of the spectrum. I would vociferously dispute this claim, however, as in the long run the group's 'poetry' is the product of the same limited, primitive ethos that bred the band's musical framework, lacking much in the way of insight or intelligence. Alex Turner certainly has lyrical ambition, for which he should be lauded, but his aspirations seldom amount to anything of value.
Alex Turner is simply a 'decent' songwriter who's been miscategorized as a modern day genius. He can certainly produce entertaining work, as Favourite Worst Nightmare, despite its myriad flaws, is fundamentally enjoyable. The Artic Monkeys are simply the victims of excessive hype, which holds the group up to a level of scrutiny that, from my perspective at least, they resoundingly fail to live up to.
Tracks like the Teddy Picker and the riff-rocker Brainstorm are solid enough, while This House Is A Circus features some clever harmonies that serve to differentiate it from the rest of the set, but in the long run the album is sadly one-note. The band seldom leave their riff-rocking comfort zone, and when they do the product of their daring proves less than spectacular, like the substandard ballad 505.
Don't misconstrue the negativity that dominates this review as being a total condemnation, however; Favourite Worst Nightmare still merits the high grade it receives, as more often than not I enjoy listening to the album. As generic and unremarkable as it may be, it's still fun on a basic, primitive level. The riffs may not be works of art but they still serve their purpose, and the band rocks with a palpable sense of conviction for the bulk of the album. This also holds true for the vocal melodies, as their familiar character doesn't diminish their catchy and enjoyable nature, and unlike many others I actually enjoy Alex Turner as a singer.
Thus Favourite Worst Nightmare is an axiomatically entertaining experience that simply falls far short of greatness. Falling short of greatness is no crime, but in the context of the monumental praise that the group's been the recipient of it's far more difficult to forgive than it would be under other circumstances.
Favourite Worst Nightmare is not a top tier rock album, nor is it a work of art. Alex Turner rarely exhibits signs of greatness, and this isn't because he's a young songwriter who has yet to reach his full potential nor is this because he's an underachiever squandering his considerable abilities; the truth is simply that he's a profoundly limited artist, and albums like Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not and Favourite Worst Nightmare demonstrate the extent of his talents. Turner can consistently deliver a fun experience, but anything more is simply beyond his reach, and this will likely hold true for the foreseeable future.
On their third album, Humbug, the Arctic Monkeys are faced with a dilemma. They could continue to operate within the confines of the formula they'd adhered to since their very inception, creating the best album possible within these (admittedly rather narrow) constraints, or they could attempt to break out of their increasingly stagnant mold and endeavor to prove that they were more than the severely limited group that they'd come across as on their prior releases.
The latter option could prove a huge risk, eschewing the safe approach that had garnered the band so much wealth and acclaim in favor of an uncertain future, but if the Arctic Monkeys delivered another rehash of Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not then they'd be in danger of boring an exceedingly fickle audience whose limited attention spans can only be appeased by constant, fresh stimulus.
Unsurprisingly, the Arctic Monkeys attempt to negotiate a balance between these two extremes on Humbug, and while their third outing is still quite reminiscent of their previous output the band has still accomplished far more than making a few perfunctory changes.
Unfortunately, these changes, while commendable in theory, often have a rather deleterious effect on the proceedings. The band have grown considerably more ambitious when it comes to the structure and form of their songs, but it's unclear if the group were ready for such a dramatic stylistic shift.
On their first two albums, most of the Arctic Monkeys' songs were rather sloppy affairs loosely held together by solid riffs, patchwork structures that were crude but serviceable for the band's purposes. Sadly, the material on Humbug seems to indicate that's all the Arctic Monkeys are really capable of.
When the band try to create fleshed out, fully realized compositions these good intentions invariably result in tracks with awkward moments or desultory patches that betray Alex Turner's stunted songwriting acumen. The band simply aren't ready to undertake an enterprise of such breadth and scope, and perhaps they never will be.
This isn't to say that all the songs on Humbug are bad. My Propeller is a solid riff rocker in a similar vein to the band's previous work, albeit a tad darker (which isn't really a positive or a negative), while the single Crying Lightning boasts a surprisingly complex vocal melody that remains catchy through all of its tricky time signatures.
There are, however, myriad misfires. Cornerstone was obviously envisioned as a disarmingly sweet romantic anthem, but the group are simply ill-equipped to successfully pull off a song of that nature. The problem stems from the fact that the Arctic Monkeys just aren't a charming group. While they can be viscerally exciting when they rock, the band lack a likeable identity and thus stumble when they try to shed their aggression for an affable persona. Turner's vocals aren't endearing, his lyrics tend to border on obnoxious and the band's music only really comes alive when they rock, rendering 'charming' interludes like Cornerstone little more than grating, incongruous and insincere posturing.
Elsewhere tracks like Dangerous Animals verge on idiotic, while Secret Door is one of the previously mentioned more ambitious tracks that simply collapses due to Turner's deficits in the songwriting department. Potion Approaching lacks much immediacy or excitement thanks to its greater pretensions, a concession that would only be justifiable if the song was far better than it actually is, and Fire And The Thud is inoffensive but forgettable.
Some tracks have their moments, like the clever keyboard usage and infectious sing-a-long refrain in Pretty Visitors, and even some lesser tracks can prove enjoyable if one's in a tolerant mood, but for the most part it appears that the Arctic Monkeys ill-advisedly bought into their own hype, believing themselves capable of musical feats that are simply well beyond their capabilities.
The band's first two albums were heavily reliant on catchy riffs to sustain them, and it's the lack of these riffs that truly exposes the group's musical shortcomings on Humbug. There are certainly still clever riffs to be found, but they're no long treated as the cornerstones of the band's songs but rather complements and embellishments. If Humbug had more musical substance then this would be fine, but the Arctic Monkeys just aren't capable of much beyond their riffs, hence this decision couldn't help but mar the album.
Thus Humbug is an entertaining but profoundly flawed affair. Many tracks can be enjoyed, but few without reservation, as even numbers with strong portions often include defects that detract from the songs' merits. There's enough entertainment value to give the album a solid grade, but it's a bad sign when a group releases their most ambitious work to date and the product is easily their worst album, a sad reality that vindicates all of the times that I've referred to the Arctic Monkeys as a highly limited rock outfit.
If the Arctic Monkeys' four albums have taught us anything, it's that Alex Turner is simply not a terribly good songwriter. He may have a decent ear for riffs and a fundamental grasp of vocal melodies, but even his best work can scarcely be called 'songs.'
On an album like Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, a typical track consists of a few riffs and an occasional vocal hook sloppily patched together with little in the way of guiding intelligence.
Unfortunately, this model represents the Arctic Monkeys at their best. It's when Turner tries to pen a more 'complete' song that he's truly exposed. It's bad enough when Turner takes a rough assemblage of riffage and tries to polish it into a more coherent song. When he strays from his strengths and tries to make a 'true' song, one is forced to question how such a minor talent has made it this far is the rock and roll industry.
On Suck It and See, Turner tries his hand at more 'conventional' songwriting time and time again, duplicating the same mistake for the better part of an album. Songs as bland as Reckless Serenade threaten to erase whatever semblance of an identity the band had in the first place. Tracks like Piledriver Waltz try desperately to be edgy, but they're only marginal improvements. At times like this, Turner's banal vocals will nearly make you long for his trademark cynical sneer.
It's frustrating, because the Arctic Monkeys clearly want to progress as a rock group; they simply lack the tools with which to do so. This is the very definition of a limited group, a title I'd already ascribed to them after their first album.
Thus it's unsurprising that the album's finest moments are those that most closely adhere to their old style. Brick By Brick features a solid riff and a catchy call-and-answer chorus. It's nothing remarkable, but it reminds one of a time when listening to Arctic Monkeys could be enjoyable. It's admittedly a bad sign when a return to the level of 'guilty pleasure' is a great accomplishment, but with Turner and company one takes what one can get.
Luckily Suck It and See contains a track that may very well be the band's best. I Bet That You Look Good On the Dance Floor was an impressive number, but it pales in comparison to the subtle menace of Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair. In addition to containing the best riff on the album, the track is also moodier than nearly any other song in the band's canon. Coupled with Brick By Brick, it forces one to recognize that the album is not without merit.
While inferior to these luminaries, the other 'passable' tracks simply serve to reinforce a certain point. Library Pictures and All My Own Stunts are Arctic Monkeys-by-numbers, but at least they sound like the Arctic Monkeys. Even when these songs are mediocre, they're still vastly preferable to the brand of faceless filler that Turner seems to believe denotes 'growth' or 'progression.' No matter how generic and primitive the riff in Library Pictures is, it's still a riff.
Thus Suck It And See is easily the band's weakest effort so far, but I have a bad feeling that there'll be worse in the future. The group seem to have forgotten what few strengths they have in a vain attempt to 'mature.' This saps the fun out of the album, replacing the band's viscerally gratifying raw rock music with drab, enervated filler.
A songwriter should write songs. Alex Turner isn't a songwriter, so he should stick to the riffs and occasional catchy vocal melodies that have taken him so far.