ARCTIC MONKEYS, Favourite Worst Nightmare (Domino)
Once upon a time, a band from the North came with a sound so fresh and vigorous it took the nation by storm. The sound was rock (the bog-standard indie-schmindie format of guitars/ bass/ drums) but crucially it was pop too: concise, punchy, murderously melodic, shiny without being “plastic”. The singer was a true original, delivering a mixture of sensitivity and strength, defiance and tenderness, via a regionally-inflected voice that stood out amid the fake-American accents of the era. The young man’s lips spilled forth words that were realistic without being dour, full of sly, salty humour and beautifully observed detail, plangent with poignancy. Oh, the debut faced quibbles from some who felt the earlier versions--those that had incited the monster buzz in the first place--were definitive and superior. But most recognized the album as a landmark, an instant classic. And then came the doubt: how can they possibly follow it?
I’m talking about the Smiths, of course. But the narrative totally fits a more recent group from the other side of the Pennines. Okay, it was Radio One evening show sessions rather than Myspace that built the Mozz buzz, but otherwise the parallels are striking, right down to the mad flurry of non-album singles and EPs and brill B-sides, scattered with heedless generosity as if to say “aren’t we the fecund fuckers, eh?” The similarity extends to my initial encounter with Favourite Worst Nightmare, which gave me an eerie flashback to the disappointment of first hearing Meat Is Murder (hardly a song from which made Uncut’s recent Best of the Smiths poll). Nightmare’s sound is bright, brash, brimming with vim, but hardly any of the tunes hit the bulls-eye, either melodically or emotionally. As for the words, they felt like “Rusholme Ruffians” and “Nowhere Fast” all over again--that same impression of a writer who shot his wad--a lifetime’s worth of feeling and watching--copiously the first time around and was now coming up empty.
A couple more plays put paid to any worries on the songfulness front: these tunes will dog your every waking hour. Stronger still is the sheer élan and force of the playing. Even with the loss of their original bassist, Arctic Monkeys still possess the most dynamic and supple UK rhythm section since Stone Roses. The band’s power and agility at times resembles an Oasis fixated on Led Zeppelin rather Beatles. “Indie” is an inadequate and misleading term for this band, probably the only one of their peer group(s) capable of making a decent fist of “Black Dog.” Sometimes you even get the slight sense that these twisty-turny, multi-segmented songs, full of stop-and-starts and lane-switches, are actually designed to show off their musicianship. They are also showcases for Alex Turner’s voice, as instrument as nimble, verve-full and blastingly potent as the guitar, bass and drums. What comes across even clearer on Nightmare than the debut is the sheer groove power of this band--the lithe swagger of “Teddy Picker”, the swinging hi-hats and low-rider bass of “D Is For Dangerous”-- which goes back to the funk outfit Judan Suki that Turner and drummer Matt Helders operated in parallel with the fledgling Arctics.
Four plays convinced me that Favourite Worst Nightmare was a near-triumph, a far superior Album #2 than Meat Is Murder, The Libertines, or Second Coming. Yet doubts nagged. The songs are often hard to connect with emotionally, partly because the lyrics are more oblique and clotted with Costello-like cleverness than last time but partly because of the subject matter. There’s a slight suspicion that a fair few of the tunes are inspired by the (yaaaaawn) travails of instant megafame. Take opener “Brianstorm”: over riffs that whir like the rotating blades of an abbatoir, Turner fires off glib and flashy (if funny) lines taking the piss out of some cooler-than-thou rockstar type they’ve evidently rubbed shoulders with these last 18 months--“top marks for not trying”, “bless us with your effortlessness” “we can’t take our eyes/off your T-shirts and ties/ combination”, climaxing with the terrific kiss-off “see you later, innovator”. Next up is “Teddy Picker”, mining a similar grinding bluesy feel to “Fake Tales of San Francisco” and a similar tone of derision, except this time round the butt seems to be rock journalists: “Dya reckon they mek ‘em tek an oath that says ‘we are defenders/of any poseurs or professional pretenders around’?”, ponders Turner before letting rip with another deliciously snarled killer-blow, “already thick and yer getting thicker.” I’m not totally sure who or what is the “dirty little herbert” in song #3 “D Is For Dangerous” but after this third-song-in-a-row delivered at the same pitch of scorn and sarcasm, it’s hard to care. On the album’s “second side” “If You Were There, Beware” provokes similar ennui: a chip off the same block as “Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong,” it lambasts “ambitiously vicious” muck-raking hacks grubbing for a kiss-and-tell story and harassing the star’s old sweethearts (“can’t you sense she was never meant to fill column inches?”). But here at least your interest is sustained by the inventive song-structure, which runs through around half-a-dozen distinct sections and twice as many guitar timbres, and again recalls “Vampires” with its heavy-rock feel.
Other songs suffer from being opaque. It’s hard to grasp the scenario in “Balaclava,” which might be about a rapist or someone pretending to be a rapist as part of a kinky sex-game. The tune does flit nicely however between bittersweet-Smiths and big-and-bashy Zep modes. “Fluorescent Adolescent” tells of that “very common crisis,” the spice going out of your sex life (“the Bloody Mary’s lacking the Tabasco”, as Turner puts it), which in this case causes the frustrated girl to pine for some hit-and-run lover from her past (“the boy’s a slag… the best you ever had”) as an escape from drab coupledom/dreary coupling. The Smiths are overwhelming present here (the melody-pang of the line “you took a left off Last Laugh lane” is virtually a sample from “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”) and on the next song “Only One Who Knows,” whose luminous guitar-tone recalls “Back to the Old House,” while Turner’s pre-rock’n’roll croon is only inches from Tommy Steele smarm.
The best things on Nightmare are the most lyrically direct. Like “Do Me A Favour,” a break-up song set--as with the first album’s best tune, “Red Light…”--in a car, Turner’s eye for vivid detail (“tears on the steering wheel, dripping on the seat”) in full effect. “This House Is A Circus” switches from the thrilling assonance of “this house is a circus/berserk as fuck” to the yearning chorus “we’re forever unfulfilled/and can’t think why”. Finally the home stretch sees Nightmare open up with the emotional clarity of “The Bad Thing”, “Old Yellow Bricks” and “505”. The first is a song about infidelity riding a galloping sound of Beatles-like ebullience, with Turner as the sorely tempted lad struggling to resist offers from a girl who promises that her boyfriend’s “not the jealous type”. “Old Yellow Bricks” bounces on a marvelously stubby and stompy funk riff and depicts a slacker type who’s wasting his life, a “fugitive” who doesn’t know what he’s “running away from”. It’s a scathing yet sympathetic portrait, especially at the plangent chorus “he wants to sleep in a city that never wakes up/blinded by nostalgia”. “505” is about Turner’s own homesickness, the number referring perhaps to a post code or a street address, an internal summons to hearth and sweetheart that must be heeded whether “it’s a seven hour flight or a 45 minute drive” away.
Expertly executed and supremely assured, albeit tinged here and there with a hint of hollow, Favourite Worst Nightmare isn’t going to make Arctic Monkeys any smaller in the scheme of things. They remain the best ensemble of guitar-toting tunesmiths to emerge from the UK this decade. While I’d be surprised if anyone, five years on, cared about this record as much as the first one, I await their Queen Is Dead keenly.