It’s 16 years since the Avalanches’ era-defining ‘Since I Left You’. How can a follow-up that took so long sound so meh?
Arctic Monkeys: Favourite Worst Nightmare
It’s the most anticipated album since The Stone Roses’ ‘Second Coming’. And it’s huge
As tosser, so tribute. Inspired by this captivating character the Arctic Monkeys met on tour in Japan last year, ‘Brianstorm’ – comeback single from the greatest indie success story this decade and opening track on the most doubter-defying second album since ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ – makes just as loud and startling an entrance. Bass guitars stampede in like Josh Homme’s personal herd of rhinos. A 12-armed psychopath appears to be playing drums. Some surf guitars are flayed to within an inch of their blood-gurgling life. And Alex Turner’s voice is urgent, breathless and Strokes-fuzzy; marshalling a ferocious rock tempest from deep elemental forces. It single-handedly announces ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ as the fire-spewing, balls-out comeback record of your dreams, confirms that (despite speculation to the contrary) we are in the presence of a seminal, generation-defining rock band in the making and declares Monkeys Phase Two go.
And the relief is akin to Keith Richards cancelling his RSVP for your father’s cremation. Heaven knows we were worried for the wee chucks – only a year after the record-obliterating first week sales of ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, the whole Growing Up In Public business looked to be taking a weighty toll. Their original bassist Andy Nicholson was pushed out through a lack of love of The Road. The sharp drop-off of album sales leant cynics to suggest they were merely an internet anomaly. And scariest of all, their habit of continually releasing new material exposed a tendency towards on-the-road mithering (‘Despair In The Departure Lounge’, from the post-album ‘Who The Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?’ EP) and a paucity of kidney-exploding new tunes to match their immaculate debut. Fears were that ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ would be a bad dream indeed; full of limp half-tunes about never going to awards ceremonies because they don’t give you a trolley for all your gongs, how you can’t get trustworthy servant staff these days and real tales of what a drag it is in San Francisco.
So, so wrong. ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ is a bold, beefed-up and brilliant return, crushing all the bile and brutality of the likes of ‘The View From The Afternoon’ into a huge rock boulder, packing it with 100 megatonnes of C-4 high explosive tuneage, casing it in a new steel production coating, lighting the fuse and rolling it down a steep hill into Doubtersville. Far from crumbling under the pressure, the Arctic Monkeys have turned Growing Up In Public to their advantage. We’ve followed them seamlessly through their growing pains on Sheffield dancefloors, their anti-scene teen rants, their broken teeth and stolen sweethearts; now, if ‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ was the sound of a bunch of bolshy boys kicking against the Yorkshire club scene pricks, ‘…Nightmare’ is four young men-of-the-world casting aside their juvenile naiveté and emerging stronger, savvier and, well, more salacious. Grrrr.
It’s all there in track two: ‘Teddy Picker’, a song that sounds like ‘Fake Tales…’ on a barrel full of Sly Stallone’s highest grade steroid supplements and encapsulates the Monkeys’ latest concerns: 1) Dark yet jaunty desert rock like QOTSA might play at a limbo contest and 2) Sex. Shagging. Rumpety-pumpety. Bumping uglies. Making the beast with two arses. If sex on ‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ meant the odd flustered fumble round the back of the Leadmill, here it’s a far more degraded affair – the ‘Teddy Picker’ of the title is a brutish and dominating sexual character, possibly getting his knuckle-sandwiched comeuppance from our protagonist: “When did your lisp replace the twist and turn?/And your fist replace the kiss?/Don’t concern us with your bollocks/I don’t want your prayer/Save it for the morning after”. Coupled with Alex’s final bark of “Who’d want to be men of the people when there’s people like you?” it leaves a sinister question mark over the track, charged with sexual and physical violence. Although, as usual, Turner’s lyrics are so obtuse and subjective he could easily be singing about reality-TV plebs and this reviewer should be sent off for sex obsession therapy.
No such ambiguity around ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’, though. After the Strokesy funk rollock of ‘D Is For Dangerous’ and the almost Chili Peppers-esque(!) ‘Balaclava’ acclimatise us to the Monkeys’ new love for stonking great Sabbaff riffage, we stumble on the album’s most cheery and accessible track, with its cheeky conga-line chug, ‘Parklife’-ish pop sparkle and Turner’s tongue-twisting Carry On lyrics about a young woman’s sex life turned sour: “You used to get it in your fishnets/Now you only get it in your nightdress/Discarded all the naughty nights for niceness/Landed in a very common crisis… Flicking through a little book of sex tips/Remember when the boys were all electric/Now when she’s told she’s gonna get it/I’m guessing that she’d rather just forget it”. The closest they’ll ever get to writing a (whisper it) Kaiser Chiefs song, it’s all nods, winks, thumbed braces and sleazy northern innuendo (“She likes a gentleman to be gentle/Was it a megadobber or a betting pencil?”) and resembles ‘Country House’ doing the hokey-cokey.
Next, a mournful surf guitar melts in, like the opening of a Morrissey torch song or the seductive scene in a Tarantino movie just before the hero overdoses. The ghost of a slide guitar wafts overhead, a blue moon rises over a drive-in somewhere and Alex Turner croons delicately through ‘Only Ones Who Know’, Arctic Monkeys’ first ever ballad. Yes, do not adjust your NME, we said ballad – not ‘acoustic track’, not ‘bit-slower-than-usual number’ – a proper ’50s dancehall ballad; air of yearning romance, tear-sodden lyric sheet, high chance of getting covered by Tony Bennett and everything. Make no mistake: it will be the first dance at your wedding.
Then, naturally, the hero overdoses and ‘Do Me A Favour’ takes us on a nightmarish psychedelic road trip into some bleak Americana backwoods with David Lynch driving, Nick Cave shooting up in the back and “tears on the steering wheel dripping on the seat”. Despite being a distinctly northern vision of the dying moments of an affair (Truman Capote never penned lines like “P’raps ‘fuck off’ might be too kind”), its sound is pure headlights-on-cactuses; rattling voodoo drums and deviant Link Wray guitars drive us out towards a dark, deserted final verse where a gang of mutant Leatherfaces wait to carve us up for dog meat with their chainsaw guitars. It’s staggering stuff – that Arctic Monkeys’ new-found worldliness has so effortlessly shifted their perspective from the whore-infested back alleys of Neepsend to the lost highway vistas of New Mexico; once wild at society, now wild at heart. They’re still painting portraits of shattered hearts with the poison from men’s souls, but now, instead of just Sheffield at night, the whole globe – from Tokyo dressing rooms to Texan truck-stops – is their canvas.
Suddenly ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ takes on a panoramic atmosphere, as if what we’d been hearing before was just the crackly narrow-screen pirate copy of the Arctic Monkeys. ‘This House Is A Circus’, with its Klaxons rave rock beats colliding with a volcanic, firecracking rock chorus, takes on a spy movie blockbuster feel; it’s Mission: Impossible if George Formby was still cinema’s biggest action hero. “We’re forever unfulfilled/And can’t think why/Like a search for murder clues/In dead men’s eyes”, Turner bellows, glossing his classic tale of small-town frustrations with Hollywood sheen, even concluding, “we’re struggling with the notion that it’s life not film”. And the cinematic references keep coming: ‘If You Were There, Beware’ is a full-on slasher flick pursuit through secluded woodland, complete with a spooky spectral piano interlude featuring “a circle of witches, ambitiously vicious they are”; ‘The Bad Thing’ is a freewheeling, Smithsy drama of adultery, kind of a punk-rock Alfie; and ‘Old Yellow Bricks’, with its rifle-sighted bass slashes, cop car siren guitars and sense of besuited ’80s urgency, is practically a Duran Duran Bond theme.
Fittingly, the final track, ‘505’, is the tear-jerker finale that has you floating from the theatre as the credits roll. See, it seems Arctic Monkeys have realised they’ll make a film of their lives one day and with the mature, rounded and relentlessly thrilling ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ have opted to beat the producers to the soundtrack. Except they’ve got the plot all wrong. They’ve envisioned here a Pulp Fiction hotch-potch of dark, acerbic and instantly memorable set-pieces, but the true Arctic Monkeys story is a real coming-of-age heart-warmer. It’s band meets success, band fools around with rules of success, band almost loses success by agreeing to record with a pissed-up Girls Aloud, but in the end band and success are made for each other. And ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ even subverts Hollywood’s biggest truism: the sequel’s better.An unforecasted hurricane.
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