In the seven years between 2006 and 2013, Alex Turner, the frontman of the band Arctic Monkeys, went from this:
My older brother made a similar transition, over the same period of time, in front of my eyes: scruffy to groomed, careless to more calculated. Alex Turner, a man from a city not 100 miles from my own, has always seemed like he wouldn’t be out of place in our house, like he could be one of my brother’s best friends. You know that friend of your older brother’s that you’ve known all your life, and had a crush on almost as long, who likes the same music you like, but who still thinks of you as a kid, so you don’t have a chance? Like that. And his band could be any of the bands my brother used to practice with in our garage—only, of course, much, much better. I can easily transpose Alex, Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley, and Matt Helders into that garage, sit near the door, and listen to them banter about football and girls in between songs. I can see them leaving the house together for messy nights out, leaving me to listen to music by myself in my bedroom. What I’m saying is that Arctic Monkeys have always somehow felt like home to me.
The band’s first two albums, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not and Favourite Worst Nightmare, consist of rough melodies that you might hear faintly down a suburban road, or through your brother’s bedroom walls, or across gray pavement on a shallow night deep with booze. Theirs is the music of English roads, houses that all look the same, dingy clubs with sticky floors and balding bouncers, and a creeping grayness that is only alleviated by all the endless “last night” stories, full of youth and arrogance.
But they are not a nostalgia act. Arctic Monkeys always move forward, and they pull their fans along with them. Their latest album, AM, is less colloquial—not as much crime nor as many dodgy locals this time around—but just as charming as the earlier ones. As Alex has explained:
I’ve never really sort of changed what I’ve written about. All right, I suppose there’s nothing about queuing up for the taxi or whatever… Perhaps it’s just from a different part of the room that those people or places are being observed. Like it’s a different director or summat, but the same story.
Their sound has gotten a lot smoother on this record; they’ve lost their scruff—just like my brother’s haircuts these days. But it still speaks directly to me; it always feels relevant to my life, and full of truth. It is basically a perfect album—especially, in my experience, for crushing on someone hard. And they haven’t forgotten the power of a great guitar solo.
I also love how unpretentious they are. In the video for their biggest hit, “Brianstorm,” they perform in shadows, shot not from the front, the vantage point of the audience, but rather from the spaces between the band members, making us feel as though we’re Arctic Monkeys too.
Their fans don’t put them on a pedestal, but love them for seeming just like us. What I find most endearing is that, despite their immense talent, they never seem precious about their music—they are childhood friends who always seem to be having FUN. Their innate sense of humor ripples through most of their lyrics as well as their public appearances. They never give ANY fucks, and I just love them for it.
Which doesn’t mean their music is superficial—quite the opposite. Their general humor and playfulness make the moments when they get serious and emotional feel that much more significant. It catches you by surprise, which makes it hit harder, I think. Like in “505,” off of My Favourite Worst Nightmare, when Alex goes, “I probably still adore you with your hands around my neck—or I did last time I checked” and just effortlessly rip at my heart. Or in “When the Sun Goes Down,” a song about a young prostitute, the line “Look here comes a Ford Mondeo” just kills me with its tender banality. And can I mention how “Mardy Bum,” not even the most serious of AM’s songs, with strings and a huge crowd singing along, always makes me want to cry?
Even though Alex Turner is a genius, he doesn’t act like one—he’s generally rather awkward and unassuming. And he’s something of a rarity these days: a musician who doesn’t directly “engage with fans” through Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. We are never filled in on the details of his day; I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Alex Turner selfie. He’s still a bit of an enigma to us. And so, for the most part, is the rest of the band. They don’t engage much with self-promotion or hype, even right before an album comes out. All of this somehow makes the music feel cleaner, because I haven’t received any ideas about it before hearing it for the first time.
Arctic Monkeys are such an oddball band, but that is what, somewhat paradoxically, makes them so popular and well-loved. They stand out because they don’t seem to care about trends; they develop their music on their own terms, according to their own interests. They are on their own and always in my heart. ♦