published: 18 /
Ben Howarth in ‘Condemned to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ reflects upon the Arctic Monkeys’ return to the fore with their latest album, ‘Suck It and See', after the commercial failure of their 2009 experimental album, ‘Humbug’
A glossy music magazine drops through the letterbox, and an evening dribbles away – review after review suggesting that several spending hundred pounds on CDs is the only reasonable course of action. After a slow start, release schedules have kicked into top gear, and there are simply far too many albums for anyone to physically buy – let alone find time in the diary to strip off the shrink-wrap and listen to.
In this quarter’s big name release, the Arctic Monkeys are back with that most vital of career moves, the hopefully-good- album-after-the-not-very-good-album-before. It’s a tricky one. Last time, the music press cowered in the face of a large and potentially angry fanbase and opted not to point out the obvious truth – that Queens of the Stone Age style chugging guitars sound far better when played by the Queens of the Stone Age.
‘Artistic Freedom’, that most sly of temptresses, was surely to blame. Bands that have already made enough money look longingly at it, without noticing the little sticker warning them that if you take too much, you’ll never get offered it again. Give the monkey a banana and they’ll eat it, but let them loose on a banana plant and you may never have any bananas again.
So, after boldly shaking off his band’s amped-up indie pop threads two years ago, Alex Turner is now sheepishly ironing them again. When it’s a choice between admitting that the last album tanked or never receiving a large sum of money to headline a major festival again, the choice isn’t too difficult.
I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve always imagined the Arctic Monkeys as a very small band – smaller even than the legendary Kent leg-spinner ‘Tich’ Freeman. Small people can, you have to admit, achieve great things. The legendary Freeman, after all, took 300 wickets in a county championship season on more than one occasion. But, just as ‘Tich’ surely came to hate that nickname when he was the country’s leading bowler, the Arctic Monkeys must wish they could shake off the image of a band formed by school-friends. Some bands arrive into the spotlight with the manly-swagger that only comes from a new can of Old Spice and mid-range branded tub of hair gel. Turner and company always seemed as if they’d been dropped off for the 'NME' cover-shoot by the drummer’s dad.
For some, maturity would be acquired by moving to New York with your television-presenter girlfriend, and then heading into the desert to make an album with a rock guitarist never afraid of referencing hard-drug use. But perceptions formed early will always count against the Arctic Monkeys. They might think they can escape their youth by getting older, but that only works if long hair and hard-rock don’t translate into back-packs and football stickers in the mind’s eye.
So why fight it? Mr Marketing Man has been trying to build the usual ‘new release buzz’. His target audience are those people who last bought an Arctic Monkeys album a long time before they last released one. The best message to send, in the circumstances, is that they’re back doing what they did before.
Even with a critical-dud on his CV, shaggy Alex Turner still sells more newspapers than beardy Bon Iver, and as such this album is getting a polite critical reception. By all accounts, there are still Josh Homme-riffs and Richard Hawley-croons buried away in the mix, but some effort has also been made to come up with hummable tunes.
Few bands make a tactical retreat like this, and because of that, I can only admire it. Coldplay responded to being told that their third album was nothing like as good as their second by listening to even more Kraftwerk – always the last refuge of those desperately short of ideas. With the hard riffing, no tune-writing approach of 'Humbug', the Arctic Monkeys seemed to have got on the dangerous path that leads to Krautrock as well. Somewhere, they’ve seen sense and decided to head back to where they came from.