Hoping that Alex Turner and co have finally returned to form? Rob Wilson explains why the latest offering from the Arctic Monkeys proves they’re not so cheeky any more…
Arctic Monkeys debut album began with a warning from the very first word: “Anticipation has the habit to set you up for disappointment”. Remember that. In the eight years that have passed since that moment, Arctic Monkeys’ journey has been one that I’ve grown up alongside. As a pre-teen in 2005, Arctic Monkeys were excitement defined – they were my generation’s Oasis. I still remember watching their Glastonbury 2007 set as a young boy and being utterly captivated, and I’ll always recall sitting in my dad’s car on a rainy camp-site in Anglesey to hear whether ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ had reached #1 in the UK.
But right now, I’m considering calling it a day. A new release from Arctic Monkeys doesn’t even generate the smallest spec of excitement for me. The continual disappointment they’ve served up since 2009 has me approaching their latest albums with apprehension and fear instead of a blank canvas. Retrospectively observing from this vantage point, it appears that Humbug was the start of Alex Turner’s journey between his own arse cheeks – any Arctic Monkeys album since then is recorded and archived evidence of this, whether it returns good or bad results. Turner’s own transformation since 2005 has seen him go from being the adolescent idol I worshipped more than most, to a man standing at the point where Joey Barton and Morrissey collide.
Opener ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ trudges in with the kind of attitude you’d expect from a band currently fronted by the most confident, cocky man in the British rock scene right now. But the prowess it displays on its surface feels complacent: its four-minute duration stays around for an absolute age as its lead riff awkwardly sulks between the irresistible seductiveness it requires and the dreary dullness it simply can’t avoid no matter how much it tries. The energy that began to disappear with Humbug feels as though it’s hundreds of yards away in an obstacle-filled pitch black room. The contrast between hearing AM’s opener for the first time and hearing ‘The View from the Afternoon’ for the first time makes 2005 seem further away than it already is.
“There is no reason whatsoever, that a rock album – an album somehow falling into the category, or referencing, or living off the tradition of rock music – should sound as flat, bland, middle of the road, as calculated and as predictable as AM” – Anthony Fantano, The Needle Drop.
How can so much change in such a short space of time? Admittedly, eight years is a very long time in music, but the evidence Arctic Monkeys provide for this claim is embarrassingly high in the most negative sense possible. Never before have they sounded so far away from their earliest recordings. And by that I don’t mean they’ve managed to become this generation’s The Beatles. But unfortunately The Beatles are only one side of the coin. Where Arctic Monkeys are concerned, their album 1 to album 5 transition has seen them take the same road as The Beatles but in the completely opposite direction. There’s no life, there’s no will to do what is needed, there’s absolutely nothing but vast and perpetual emptiness.
I long for the day that Arctic Monkeys roll up with a new track that not only evokes the memory of the band’s glory days in 2006, but resurrects it to the point where the nostalgic tug on my heartstrings is too much to resist. But as AM wears on, I begin to lose enthusiasm for that day. The lack of ideas on show on AM are horrifyingly ominous – whether it’s ‘One for the Road’s sickening falsetto, ‘Arabella’s obnoxious closing guitar solo or ‘I Want It All’s predictable chord progression (which is note-for-note from Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’), there’s nothing here that for one second suggest that this is a good rock album. A decent pop album perhaps, but not in a million years could this be considered as a triumphant rock album. The inner chambers of my heart yearn desperately for the days when Artic Monkeys chord sequences were so inventive and colourful that you could have ‘Riot Van’ and ‘Only One Who Knows’ repeating for decades without boredom, but as their sound has become increasingly refined as time has gone on, I’ve become disillusioned.
That’s without going into how far off his peak Alex Turner is on AM. Over the years his delivery has become increasingly melodic, but his vocals aren’t even close to how passionate or powerful they need to be for a rock album. I can already hear you arguing that I previously mentioned that AM could work as a decent pop album, but I’ve come to that conclusion from cheap imitations of Black Sabbath and continually poor attempts at being Queens of the Stone Age. Turner’s not even on point lyrically – topics mostly centre on slightly more raunchy and intimate context, but Turner seems more interested in vague, oddly ambiguous metaphors that aren’t particularly worth reading in to. It seems that when Turner is lyrically flat and uninteresting, his band follows suit.
However, as penultimate track ‘Knee Socks’ finally finished, my heart gave a flutter of hope. If there’s one thing I have to hand to Arctic Monkeys, it’s that they know how to finish an album off, even if their grip on my heart has loosened over the years. I can feel the anticipation as my mind begins to replay images of when ‘A Certain Romance’ hit me for the first time: sitting at a friend’s house surrounded by my friends, realising they were the people I’d be spending what I now view as the most carefree days of my life with – its outro echoing off the walls inside of my brain – leaving marks that are still there today. But then a dreadful rendition of John Cooper Clarke’s ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ actually happens, its lifeless hook is memorable for a split second before the dream dies and I realise I’ve come full circle: I have to let go of Arctic Monkeys.
At first that’s a hard thing to accept, you know. I can put on a brave face and say that I don’t mind not liking Arctic Monkeys’ new material anymore – but it would be a façade, and a lie. I’m not sure anyone could really understand how desperately I want to like AM other than myself (because, you know, hey, they’re my thoughts!) but I suppose years of wearing their material thin due to endless spins in the CD player or countless plays on my iPod has erased any excitement I could potentially find in a new Arctic Monkeys record.
Growing up, I thought Arctic Monkeys were bloody cool, and I thought they were beyond captivating. But I’ve watched them not only grow, but change, and comparing their old sound to their new sound makes their arc as a band seem like more of a loss of trajectory. Alex Turner’s latest witticisms no longer catch my imagination in the way that they used to, Matt Helders’ drumming doesn’t leave my jaw hanging open like it did – each of AM’s drum patterns feel spacious but ultimately sluggish – and even the hugely enjoyable and much improved mix of ‘R U Mine?’ doesn’t feel as though it’ll stand my own personal test of time in the way their early material has without a problem. I think it’s time I stopped expecting so much of a band that have grown into something I’ve perhaps just moved away from.
Eight years after he offered it to me, I think I’ll take Turner’s warning now. When 2015 or 2016 rolls around and Arctic Monkeys release another album, I’ll remember that “Anticipation has the habit to set you up for disappointment”. The last embers of a fire that has at times roared above the tallest trees is about to die out. I understand that there are some of you reading this that will have enjoyed every Arctic Monkeys release so far, and there are moments on AM worth remembering for myself and many others – but for me, that’s it. It’s cruelly poetic that the first piece of advice that Alex Turner ever gave to me would cause me to turn against him. It’s hard to accept a realisation such as this, but on my iTunes, as AM finishes, ‘Brianstorm’ bursts into life, and that’s where the deal is sealed; I realise that, as nostalgia floods my innards, I can no longer take the beatings my loyalty to this band has taken – beatings that have been getting steadily worse since ‘My Propeller’.
I don’t want to say that this is me “growing out” of Arctic Monkeys, because I believe that if you like something enough it’ll stay with you forever – a little like their earlier material has. I said earlier that Arctic Monkeys last three albums are the recorded and archived adventures of Alex Turner disappearing up his own back passage, yet it seems I was slightly off: they’re the sound of my heart breaking.