Since their inception, I’ve always thought of the Arctic Monkeys as pretentious musicians, but it has taken some time to notice the exact nature of what I believe to be their fraud-like nature. It’s not the barrelling guitar hooks that give off the impression that the band are trying to be Led Zeppelin, and it’s not the sly, psychedelic poetry that posits them as this generation’s Syd Barrett, but it’s the way in which they attempt to deflect from their shortcomings by claiming that they actually read a book every now and then, which might distinguish from other knuckleheaded guitar-oriented bands a la Kasabian or Oasis. Yes, they are pretentious, and in all the wrong ways.
In reality, I think of Arctic Monkeys less as Samuel Beckett’s great treatise of despair in a post-nuclear milieu (his brilliantly written Endgame) and, instead, consider them as the closing chapter of the overstuffed Marvel franchise (the other Endgame).
In the new century, it is easy to sneer at Kasabian and Oasis, however, they at least compensate with a sense of melody, which stands as something more impressive than the “baa baa black sheep” routine Alex Turner has perennially recycled in his hope to remain productive and progressive. It would probably be better if he didn’t. Just listen to the banal nonsense of ‘My Propeller’, and tell me I’m wrong about a songwriter on his quest to embellish hard rock with yearning, or an accomplished sense of musicianship. They’re not the saviours of rock that some hail them as, but they are a strong addition to the canon of rock bands who are currently parading the live market. Yeah, they’re a fine band – but they’re not as clever as they think they are.
Weirdly, Turner’s greatest melody is on ‘I Want To Be Your Vacuum Cleaner’, but that’s because he’s humble enough to follow John Cooper Clarke’s lead, barely tying the poem under one billowing, flowing hook. And when he’s humble – as he is on the strangely moving ‘Cornerstone’ – Turner comes across as a decent chap, capable of performing a worthy tune.
But then he tries to turn to his Thesaurus, using it as his way to show off his vocabulary without taking the time to understand the meanings of such lofty words as “inconspicuous” and “scantily clad”, particularly when they’re seated on the same album that imagines a Montague frequenting the local discotheque in the hope of fulfilling his “Orwellian fantasy”: Leave it to the lecturers, lad, and if you can’t do that, leave it to Mark Knopfler. Knopfler’s a bonafide writer, having served his time as a lecturer and journalist before recording the first Dire Straits album.
There’s no greater sense of their naivety than in the way in which Arctic Monkeys attempt to pass ‘Four Out of Five’ off as a refined exploration of a concept spearheaded and coined by Neil Postman, throwing in a cute reference to the school of thought through a collection of cute couplets, written in an attempt to showcase Turner’s sense of importance in the realm of rock. Glaringly, the ‘Information Action Ratio’ is the name of a space centre that centres the central characters as they float through their personal odyssey in the hope of attaining enlightenment – or purpose, if nothing else.
Actually, let me backtrack: To call this pretentious is frankly an insult because the act of pretence actually takes a certain level of creativity, which has been sorely missing from the Arctic Monkeys’ orbit since issuing their explosive, epithet-filled debut in 2006. The band backpedalled on the genuinely awful Favourite Worst Nightmare (even the title is the type of juvenile portraiture a 14-year-old might dream up, in their attempt to impress teenage girls with vignettes of Burgess and Kafka), but they picked themselves up in time for Suck It and See.
They appeared happy to abandon any levels of intellectual acumen to release an unabashedly rock-oriented album that was fun, flavoursome and easygoing. To their credit, they did manage to demonstrate a level of Clarke-like intelligence on ‘Piledriver Waltz’, which was written for Richard Ayoade‘s lyrical Submarine. It was a step forward: The band were aware of their place in the canon of rock, although they could tip their toes into the pools of phrenic rock for a flirtation, before swiftly searching for the exit. It was a happy compromise. Ultimately, these guys were the new bad boys of rock, catering to a market Oasis and The Libertines left behind.
And then the band made AM, a 40-minute pile up that had the gall to put it up with the naked, unvarnished portraiture Lou Reed had spent a lifetime perfecting. Somewhere within the vicinity, the band decided they were the next Queen – clearly oblivious to Matt Bellamy’s efforts to bring Queen-esque flourishes to Muse, one of the worst bands Britain has yet produced – and laced the backdrop of the insidious ‘R U Mine’ with a collection of helium induced backing vocals, in the hope of obtaining the grandeur and excellence of their heroes. At least Muse had the good grace to hide behind a selection of pink spectacles in an effort to pull off the ridiculous. At least Muse were canny enough to see the silliness in the hostility.
Again, Arctic Monkeys are, in a word, pretentious, but their fifth album helped clarify why they seem so popular to the general masses: Although their music is decidedly unintelligent, they wanted people to think they were intelligent. They wanted to come across as the Tolstoy’s of rock, or the next Joyce, since Buzzcocks had seemingly lost steam since the release of their blinding ‘Harmony In My Head’. But there stood the clarification: Buzzcocks were familiar with Joyce. Arctic Monkeys wanted to appear like they spent their Friday nights reading the likes of Joyce, instead of prancing around the clubs of London and New York.
It took some of Simon Amstell’s intelligence and education to call them out because the band are charming enough to hide behind pathos. Indeed, French audiences were charmed at Matt Helders’ rubbish attempts at reviving his secondary school level of French on television (croyez-moi quand je dis qu’il avait l’air horrible); and knowledgeable to quote a good writer or two to make them seem like the voracious readers John Lennon, George Harrison and Syd Barrett might have hung out with. They certainly knew their Cooper Clarke; they’ve tried several times to ape him, and eventually acquiesced to put his words to music in what was a much better move.
Again, the highlights on AM and Tranquility… are the ones where the band simply stick to their truths, whether it’s the ominous tones of ‘Do I Wanna Know?’, or the giddy vocal interpolations of ‘Golden Trunks’. When they’re good, they offer a genuine glimpse into the minds of accomplished British musicians: Sincere, good-natured, and generally inoffensive artists who know how to put a concept to a chord. Yeah, they know how to write a song about a girl they’re dating, and ‘Why Do You Only Call Me When You’re High’ is strangely romantic for a man who is contemplating a quickie.
And that’s all very well and good, until you hear ‘Four of Out Five’, which attempts to showcase the band’s interest in the world of cultural criticism, a connection even more amusing than anything Postman might have deemed worthy of human attention. Clearly, Turner hasn’t read anything that connects the information-action ratio to the realm of rock, because in his efforts to appear clever, he unwittingly shows himself as the clown he was always destined to be.
Maybe that’s why ‘Flourescent Adolescent’ works as well as it does, because it’s a painting of a clown looking for closure on a trajectory spent irritating, instead of amusing people. Perhaps if Turner and the Arctic Monkeys were more honest in themselves, they would decorate in a collection of white pastels in the hope of obtaining sense of purpose in their career. It’s admirable to hold a Thesaurus in the studio, but in the case of the band, they feel happier casting out the definitions, without registering the actual meaning of the word.
Do you want my advice? Just pick up a copy of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and learn a few chords to truth that jumps from the pages. Doubtless, it won’t be much less palatable than the stomach-churningly awful ‘Four Out of Five’, but nobody expected excellence from a casual reader, putting conjecture on the chords that could be read in a “how to play guitar” guide. But we do expect something grander from a band that should pay close attention to the concepts they are supposedly espousing. But hey, at least the Arctic Monkeys look good on the dancefloor.