Emerging from suburban Sheffield on a frenzied wave of hype, the Arctic Monkeys neatly filled the void left by the Libertines as avatars of UK retro-punk. Fronted by Alex Turner, an elfin cross between Paul Weller and Jarvis Cocker with a forceful, expressive voice, the band made a conspicuous splash on the scene when the NME ranked their debut as the fifth greatest British album of all time — prior to its official release. Mixing the Gang of Four via Franz Ferdinand with a distinctive lyrical approach, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (titled after something Albert Finney says in the classic 1960 kitchen sink drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) is, in effect, a concept album, highlighting a night out and all its requisite dangers (girls, booze, bouncers, cops and more girls). “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” a marvelously ambivalent piece of teenage lust, casts Turner as a smart aleck lothario on the make who knows his pop culture well enough to realize the object of his affection is bringing out his inner Simon Le Bon, albeit with lowered expectations (“Your name isn’t Rio, but I don’t care for sand”). When Turner sticks to portraying himself as a bemused participant or observer to the events of the evening, the album is a euphoric blast. Only when he strains for sensitivity (“Mardy Bum”) or ludicrously adopts a defensive me-and-my-band-against-the-world posture (“Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong, But…”) do things take a wrong turn.
By the end of the album and, implicitly, the long night out, he’s managed to chuck off enough snappy lines to make the whole adventure worthwhile. The finale, “A Certain Romance,” provides the disc’s most resonant moment as Turner notes that “there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones,” simultaneously castigating his peer group and implicating himself as well. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not manages to celebrate and mock its cultural milieu simultaneously with genuine affection and sarcasm balanced so well that the scale never tips too far either way.
Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys? nabs “A View From the Afternoon” off the debut and appends four thematically similar but noticeably weaker non-album tracks.
A buoyant standalone single, “Leave Before the Lights Come On” set the stage for the masterful and expansive Favourite Worst Nightmare. Using less frenetic energy and more ferocious dynamics, Turner, new bassist Nick O’Malley, guitarist Jamie Cook and drummer Matt Helders incorporate deft tempo changes into richer and more varied arrangements. As the lyrics walk into dangerous “what I have learned from being a Rock Star” territory, they never descend to navel-gazing or lose the caustic humor. Turner’s observations this time are more panoramic, addressing compromise and regret in characters who just one album ago thought the night would never end. Now, bored lovers settle for bland contentment (“Old Yellow Bricks”), clueless trendies grasp for emotional connection (the hilarious “Brianstorm” sums it up nicely: “She’ll be saying ‘use me’ / Show me the Jacuzzi”) and youth slips away from a onetime party girl (the charmingly dissolute “Fluorescent Adolescent”). Dropping one-liners like Elvis Costello in his prime (“Perhaps ‘fuck off’ might be too kind” adds a particularly nasty sting to the Smiths-like “Do Me a Favour”), Turner’s scathing wit now resides comfortably inside fully formed songs. Favourite Worst Nightmare is a surprisingly significant improvement on an excellent debut.