Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
by Simon Reynolds
Late last year, Arctic Monkeys rode internet buzz to become the biggest UK guitar-band since Oasis. There are plenty of parallels--cocky-as-hell lads
from the industrial North of England instantly embraced as saviours of Brit-rock--but Arctic Monkey are actually by far the superior band. Their melodies are indelible without inducing Beatles flashbacks, the lyrics actually make sense and are about something, and, crucially, they've got a rhythm section that actually makes the music move. For all of Jamie Cook's abrasive, jagged guitar riffs, the Monkeys don't really sound "indie," and that's got everything to do with the agility of drummer Matt Helders and bassist Andy Nicholson, who can switch from punk relentlessness to Sabbath-style "heavy" dynamics to zippy punk-funk in the blink of a hi-hat. Showcasing this nimbleness to the max, Monkeys songs are crammed with thrilling swerves, jolts, and false endings.
What really elevates the Monkeys into a class of their own, though, is frontman Alex Turner. His insolent rasp sweetly tinged with plaintiveness and poignancy, Turner is shaping up to be one of the all-time great English singers. His delivery is full of delicious moments where his classic rock'n'roll snarl slips into a thick regional accent: "alright" becomes "al-reet," "up" becomes "oop", and you simply have to hear the twangy lasciviousness with which Turner sings lines like "you sexy little swine" or "dreams of naughtiness." Spiced with regional slang ("you've got the face on" = "in a bad mood"), his lyrics couple the invincible confidence of youth with a sense of pathos and fatalism of someone older, wiser, and sadder.
The band's hometown Sheffield is a famously bleak city once synonomous with the steel industry, and accordingly Turner's prime terrain is young people grabbing for fun and sparkle in the face of all the forces that would crush their spirit, whether it's psycho bouncers, limited funds, or simply England's wet winters and grey summer skies. Turner's observational flair is at its most acute and original on "Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured," probably the first song ever about getting a cab home after a drunken night out. Turner sketches it all with keen-eyed economy: the driver who refuses to let six in the cab ("especially with the food"), watching the meter anxiously while contemplating doing a runner, and reliving the night's highlights, like the fight that broke out in the taxi line and the "beyond belief" babe in the pub that evaded his clutches.
Whatever People Say is front-loaded with hell-for-leather instant classics about chatting up and copping off, like "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" and "Still Take You Home." Even better, though, are the slower songs, which allow the tenderness in Turner's voice to bloom and encourage
empathy to triumph over sarcasm in the lyrics. In 'Mardy Bum," Turner struggles to smooth things over with his pissed-off girlfriend (her scowl as fearsome as "looking down the barrel of a gun"), evoking memories of "cuddles in the kitchen" in a desperate attempt to dissipate the sour mood.
"Riot Van" is a wry ballad about watching bored youth expertly bait the town police but avoid actually getting arrested--most of the time, anyway. At 20, Turner is close enough to these lads to remember feeling that same mix of restlessness and cheek, but he also knows they're gonna get burned sooner rather than later. This delicate poise of intimacy and distance permeates the album, making the Monkeys vignettes of teenage wildlife resonate far beyond the local world they so vividly and vigorously document.