Last weekend Arctic Monkeys headlined Reading and Leeds Festival for the second timeand are rapidly approaching a decade of being Britain's number one band. With the release of their most recent album, they shed their indie-snake skin once more and moved into a new, sexy brylcreemed sound that invited even more people into their musical manner. So, how did they go from pulsating, machine-gun-punk music about taxis and pool cues to the lustful, hip-lilting beats that inhabit AM?
I have a groundless rule that whoever your favourite band or musician were when you were sixteen will forever be engraved as your favourite band. My older brother turned sixteen when Oasis released What's the Story (Morning Glory) and, as you could probably deduce, the Arctic Monkey's released Whatever People Say I Am That's What I'm Not one month before I turned sixteen myself. Eight years on I can still enjoy that debut album and wonder at how it presaged the many things that, for me, occupied the years 2006 to 2008. Deprived pubs, warm pints, bigger boys with cars, riot vans, small town heroes, classic rebooks, dancing with girls and eventful taxi rides materialised to a soundtrack of contagious riffs and rhyming colloquialisms. I can still bizarrely remember seeing Robbie Williams sing a few lines form 'I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor' on Jools Holland, a week before the Arctic Monkeys made their own debut.
But this apposite acne-punchline-rock evolved and pushed itself into other shapes and sounds. I recall sitting in my living room with my friends and viewing a special preview of 'Brianstorm' on MTV2, or Qmusic, or some other archaic music channel and being punched into persuasion. The same sound from 2006 but faster, louder and wittier. I find it hard for to believe that there was a time when teenagers did wear a t-shirt and tie combination. Favourite Worst Nightmare continued with the jokes (see: 'D is for Dangerous' and 'Fluorescent Adolescent') and stuck with the curious charm of local themes like teddy pickers and jumping over next door's garden. Yet, resting inside this muscular album was tenderness and a change in approach with songs like 'Do Me a Favour', 'Only Ones Who Know' and '505'. The latter three songs suggesting a life after the vociferous riffs have tired out. It seemed like Alex Turner, "the Lounge Lizard”, extricated the sentimental parts of these songs and injected them into the Last Shadow Puppets whilst reserving the soft melodies for their next album, an album that would personally grow to ascend above the rest: Humbug.
Although it parallels pompous mythologies like Bon Iver moving to a Thoreauvian mountain cabin or Jay Z sensationally self-promoting his premature retirement, the Arctic Monkeys moving into the desert with Josh Homme and going all Jim Morrison on us had an enchanting feel to it. They came out bearded, rendered in denim and cajoling us with their self-branded "full moon music". They had swapped their distinctly humble, English sound for a broader rock throwback whilst still integrating Alex Turner's tantalisingly-tongue-twisting vernacular. Tangible facts like going a little bit Frank Spencer under the influence or clear narratives about girls astray and extramarital affairs had transformed into nebulous and slightly seductive allusions to propellers, undulant oceans and endearing games of crying lightning. It's their best album, it has taken me years to discern it but I am sure it is true. Like a self-conscious artist, the Arctic Monkeys entered a clearly different and somber period and it was devastatingly good. They even covered Nick Cave.
After the heights (or, the lows) of Humbug, Suck it and See returned to the humour and that old, heavier sound. 'Brick by Brick' and 'Don't Sit Down 'Cause I Moved Your Chair' carry a lucid rock tone, with Alex Turner even admitting a change: "we always do songs with a thousand words, we thought we should try one that had less than 50, which turned out to be 'Brick by Brick'". The band's self-aware exercise in rock cliches and minimal lyrics is slightly to the album's detriment. It's not a coincidence that the best songs: 'She's Thunderstorms', 'All My Own Stunts' and 'Piledriver Waltz' have a morning-after-Humbug feel to them.
That leaves us with 2014's . In what seems like an age ago, they dangled 'R U Mine?' and then over a year later followed it up with the contrite 'Do I Wanna Know?' and, avoiding subjectivity as much as possible, they are superb songs. They both have that lost, somber Humbug feel to them and bring back some 'Still Take You Home' bassy riffs. The lyrics and the euphony have returned with Turner conceding recently himself that, in the early years: "I'd be in the corner of a pub...but eventually you run out of things to point at so you look inwards". This return to the intimate, paired with a peculiar chronic influence hints at a unique and arresting tone that pulls it up to Humbug as one of their best albums. Consider the almost debut album quip: “why'd you only call me when you're high?” with it's opening barsthat anticipate a Snoop Dogg cameo. Marrying the West-Coast beats with the fashionable penchant for falsetto,AM is Humbug in a leather jacket and Danny Zuco hair. The albumswoons and shakes and pinpoints that late-night/early-morning maudlin state perfectly.
Back when the Arctic Monkeys headlined Reading & Leeds before with a handful of songs they were callow yet still electric. Before they were relying on 'Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts'to fill the quota. Now, eightyears on, they have an arsenal of diverse songs to choose from and they don't even need to play 'When the Sun Goes Down' anymore. Last Bank holiday weekend the Arctic Monkeys provided even more evidence of their irresistible endurance. Even my Mum started moving to a reinvigorated 'Dancing Shoes'.