We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
By the time you’ve finished this review, Arctic Monkeys will have broken up.
Well, maybe not. It wouldn’t be too prudent for the band that just made the fastest-selling debut album in British history—and the fifth-best Britrock album of all time, according to NME readers—to split just yet. Moving in less than a year from a few judiciously distributed demos to Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the Monkeys have expertly ridden the surge of hype. Still, they have to fall off eventually: Chaos, both in and around the music, is now requisite for British rockers. For the Monkeys to exercise too much control over their careers—or their lives—would undermine their appeal.
Everyone knows the old story of what the British did to raw, feral American rock ’n’ roll: They gave it little-boy haircuts, dressed it in suits, and made it safe for The Ed Sullivan Show. But that was a long time ago. The current paradigm, which dates back at least as far as the Clash—once deemed too rough for American ears—is a band at the brink, plucking jittery riffs and mumbling woozy lyrics as it tumbles into oblivion. The all-time champ at this is Pete Doherty, late of the Libertines and now (maybe) of Babyshambles, both combos whose thin, anarchic styles were enabled by Clash man Mick Jones. And oh yeah, at various times he’s been charged with assault, DUI, and possession of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and morphine.
Probably because of Doherty’s unpredictability, the U.S. landing of Babyshambles’ debut album, Down in Albion, has been repeatedly delayed. (The release is currently set for March 14.) Because both bands are sweeping yet deeply provincial and indebted in equal parts to punk and skiffle, Arctic Monkeys and Babyshambles were once scheduled to share this review. But because the arrival of Down in Albion cannot be reliably forecast, the album was swapped with For Screening Purposes Only, by fellow Londoners Test Icicles—who promptly broke up. In a farewell press release, band member Sam Merrann (aka Sam E. Slaughter) claimed to be “sick, tired, and miserable”—as if that condition were somehow inimical to the kind of music his group made.
Of Arctic Monkeys and Test Icicles, who share a label, the latter are the simpler case. Musically, the trio is heir to No Wave, postpunk, grunge, screamo, and every American band (and a few British ones) that ever recorded with Steve Albini. Plus, of course, the Fall. Yet the group’s abrasiveness is tempered by craft and even melody. Harsh blasts such as “Maintain the Focus” and “What’s Michelle Like?” abut songs that, if not exactly “Waterloo Sunset,” are tuneful enough for Blur in its we-like-Pavement-as-much-as-the-Kinks phase. The “waiting for connection” chorus of “Pull the Lever” and the call-and-response verses of “Boa vs Python” are poised and catchy, and “Circle. Square. Triangle” does the old punk-funk better than the less-inventive but better-dressed Franz Ferdinand (also a labelmate).
“We could do with some more poison” goes that last song’s chantalong, and during that bit, Test Icicles sound like a more toxic version of…early Spandau Ballet. Indeed, as much as For Screening Purposes Only extols pandemonium, it always feels tightly controlled, its disarray always a little too contrived. Perhaps because all three members play guitar at least part of the time and thus must rely on machines for their rhythm section, the band never sounds as reckless as its lyrics seem to promise.
“I met a girl that’s the color of piss/And sucked her dry for the acidic taste,” announces vocalist Devonte Hynez (aka Dev Metal) in “Catch It!” Not to goad him into doing anything stupid, but the Icicles ultimately don’t come across as remotely as piss-looking and acid-sucking as Doherty, who recently eclipsed even himself by getting busted three times in the same day. It’s hard to compete with self-destructiveness like that—which suggests that, for Test Icicles, breaking up wasn’t so hard to do.
The first time around, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not sounds like what Hynez & Co. were going for: a blur of noise coalescing around Alex Turner’s vocals. But there’s a lot going on here, and Turner isn’t the only thing holding it together. The most common formulation for the Sheffield-area band is that it combines Oasis and Blur—two groups that never meant as much here as over there—but that covers only the Monkeys’ sensibility: Northern working-class (Oasis) blended with the finesse and intelligence associated with London gentry (Blur). Comparisons that strike closer to home musically are the prole-art-vignette-spinning Pulp—also from Sheffield—and the Smiths, whose lyrics-stuffed cadences and gift for stylistic assimilation precede such exemplary Monkeys songs as “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (Whatever’s first single). And, of course, the Libertines, whose weary fragility is recalled by all of “Riot Van” and half of “When the Sun Goes Down” (Single No. 2).
Turner was just voted to the top of NME’s current Cool List—replacing, naturally, Pete Doherty—and he does provide a certain something to the Monkeys. A better lyricist than either Noel Gallagher (but you knew that) or Damon Albarn, Turner offers crisp snapshots of what he apparently knows best: the adolescent drinking and mating rituals of Britain’s rust belt, rendered in chock-a-block verses overflowing with near rhymes: “I bet that you look good on the dancefloor/I don’t know if you’re looking for romance or” goes one tossed-off refrain, and “From the Ritz to the Rubble” casually rhymes “scary ’un” and “totalitarian.” Such lines are delivered in a thin, no-show-biz-here voice with what British commentators say is a distinctively South Yorkshire accent.
But Turner, who also plays rhythm guitar, isn’t carrying this band. Bassist Andy Nicholson and drummer Matt Helders are supple and versatile, capable in songs such as “Dancing Shoes” of shifting from galloping rock to strolling funk without ever sounding forced. Lead guitarist Jamie Cook is equally flexible, sometimes mixing sprinting punk, looping art funk, and almost-unrestrained feedback within a few bars of a single song. Add the judicious use of singalong or backing vocals, and a song like “Fake Tales of San Francisco” can seem both scrappy and epic in under three minutes. The musicians keep things direct and off-balance, ending songs so abruptly that they sound as if they might start all over again, which they sometimes do.
The only thing about the impeccably titled album that seems overreaching is the gallery of photographs in the CD booklet, which depict bleak Northern streets and their blank inhabitants. These pictures don’t tell us anything we don’t know—or are supposed to know. But then, the same is basically true of the music they frame. Brisk and clever as they are, these under-21s are merely the latest young, smart, and snotty variation on British postpunk. The band’s sound is already so well-defined that it could quickly become a cage, and stardom could soon deprive them of the everyday nights out that are their source material. It’s clear that Arctic Monkeys have the skills to grow and even surprise. But what they’re expected to do next is fall apart.CP