Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Not since Oasis first lumbered onstage in the Nineties has England’s already hyperbolic press worked itself into the kind of critical lather that has greeted Arctic Monkeys. One U.K. publication called them “Our Generation’s Most Important Band” and declared the Monkeys’ debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the fifth-greatest Brit album ever — the same week it was released. The British press is only slightly more enthusiastic than the British public, which recently made the disc England’s fastest-selling debut album of all time.
The good news: In the case of this unpretentiously artful punk band, the reality nearly meets the hype. This unassuming foursome of nineteen- and twenty-year-olds specializes in propulsion, momentum and repetition — in succinct riffs and snarly, wordy lyrics, courtesy of frontman Alex Turner. Anxious guitars interlock with racing drums to create a raw and vigorous roar, with no frills beyond maybe a spot of maracas.
Hailing from industrial Sheffield’s suburban wasteland, the Monkeys first picked up their instruments three years ago, and at early gigs gave away demos that soon swept the Internet. Before the band even signed to a record label, its fans sang along to every song at concerts.
Turner’s hyper-realistic observations help explain why his group inspires this much loyalty. He bluntly documents the lives of young Northern England clubbers in an intensely regional Yorkshire whine, an unlikely star describing a decidedly unglamorous sliver of nightlife. Whatever People Say I Am is practically an old-fashioned concept album about working-class clubbing, a Saturday Night Fever for the British sons and daughters of parents raised on disco and punk. Yet Turner’s aim isn’t to be the best dancer, or to escape to the big city: It’s merely stayin’ alive, and pulling a few birds. The opening track, “The View From the Afternoon,” sets the stage with dead-end dive-bar lyricism: “I want to see all of the things that we’ve already seen,” Turner sings. Subsequent songs name those things — bored cops pummeling underage drinkers; vindictive doormen; and fistfights before, during and after dancing. The album’s first U.K. smash single, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” nails a current night out’s diminished returns: “There isn’t no love, no Montagues or Capulets/Just . . . dirty dance floors and dreams of naughtiness.”
“Riot Van” introduces the album’s second act by dramatically dropping tempo and drums, and although it boasts the disc’s sweetest and fleshiest melody, the violence and vitality don’t falter. “Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured” chronicles a calamitous post-clubbing cab ride through Sheffield streets with Strokes-ian swagger. On the second U.K. hit single, “When the Sun Goes Down,” Turner paints a nasty but vivid picture of provincial hookers and pimps (“He told Roxanne to put on her red light/It’s all infected, but he’ll be all right”), spitting out details of place and character that would make any MC proud. The final and longest cut, “A Certain Romance,” sums up everything that’s come before with galloping tom-toms; climaxing, then gently subsiding guitars; and a nuanced mix of sympathy for the local bad boys and sorrow for what they’ve wrought: “The point’s that there isn’t no romance around there.”
Will America warm to Arctic Monkeys? The band lacks a single as undeniably hooky as, say, Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out,” but Whatever delivers more than that: a start-to-finish rush of invigorating riffs and pointed narratives that heightens with repeated exposure. They’ve made an album that U.S. punk fans of several generations could enjoy, if not claim as their own. It seems unlikely that this world of chavs in track suits with pool cues in fists will translate to the average Fall Out Boy fan. But for now, Arctic Monkeys are turning their cold small-town roots into callow Anglo cool.
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