Given that there probably isn’t a guitar-wielding teenager who wouldn’t swap with them right now, it might seem strange to suggest that we should feel sorry for Arctic Monkeys. Nonetheless, how would you feel if you had just lived a 2005 like theirs? Carried from the bedroom to number one on a nationwide wave of web-trawling adulation. An upswell so huge that even if the press and radio hadn’t chosen to join in, it would have happened anyway. Very nice, of course, but it’s doubtful that Arctic Monkeys’ naturally reticent frontman Alex Turner would have felt anything other than uncomfortable to see himself sitting atop NME’s annual cool list. Seen in the audience at a North London indie venue recently, he looked like a startled foal – unclear of how to conduct himself in a venue where everyone knew who he was.
Perhaps we ought to exercise similar compassion when appraising his band’s debut album. In an ideal world, Arctic Monkeys’ first album would have emerged to a modest fanfare, lapped up by a core audience of people for whom Zane Lowe is less a person, more a cultural template by which to live and breathe. Over the course of a year, it might have spawned a couple of modest hit singles, allowing the band to acclimatize at their own pace in time for album number two. In a career that seems to have proceeded on fast-forward, that’s no longer an option. Those people who tend to buy their records from a little shelf beside the checkout at Tesco might care to take note then. Because Whatever People Say I Am… is a classic first album rather than a classic per se – an exercise in getting the repertoire down on tape without losing the spontenaiety of the live shows.
Songs like Mardy Bum and Still Take You Home aren’t significantly different from the incarnations floating on the net over the last six months, but with the production buffed up a little, we at least get the chance to appreciate the lyrical world that Alex Turner has fashioned for himself. Anyone who remembers him sternly upbraiding sections of the audience at a recent London show for singing, “You fat bastard” at the group’s bassist Andy Nicholson will have seen the moral certitude with which the singer conducts himself. It’s that same admonishing voice you can hear on the broad black-and-white brushstrokes of many of these songs – most notably new single When The Sun Goes Down, which sees Turner pitching the plight of Sheffield prostitutes against the amorality of the “scumbags” who use them.
Like his spiritual forbears John Cooper Clarke and The Streets’ Mike Skinner, Alex Turner’s sharp eye for the vernacular of everyday conversation yields several moments of scuffed pop excellence: the girlfriend with “a face on” in Mardy Bum; the taxi rank aggro of Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured. What Turner and his compadres couldn’t possibly realize at this stage of their collective life is that, however much they improve as musicians, they’ll find it hard to lay down songs which surge as magnificently as From The Ritz To The Rubble. Recalling Magazine’s 1979 single Shot By Both Sides, this typically tense Turner vignette sees a nightclub bouncer’s bloodlust escalates in tandem with Jamie Cook’s s adrenalised guitar to a point where the song can barely contain them.
That Whatever People Say I Am… is not an unqualified success shouldn’t be that surprising when you consider how they’ve been sped to this point. Had their album been delayed by a couple more months, you suspect that the perfunctory rehearsal rock of Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong would ended up in the bin. Ditto the clotted funk of Dancing Shoes. With the exception of the chart-topping I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor though, the best songs on here show a marked development from the ramshackle clatter that brought them to wider attention. Riot Van is a bleary memoir of a night spent running away from policemen – not because you have something to hide, but because it’s something to do.
But it’s the album’s closer, the aforementioned, A Certain Romance that truly serves notice of Turner’s rapidly expanding lyrical prowess. Casting its gaze around a world where “there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones”, the singer’s beautifully observed paean to smalltown indolence oscillates between anger, resignation and, crucially, affection for his underachieving peers. If you still can’t find it in your heart to feel sorry for Arctic Monkeys’ slip of a frontman, listen to him here, singing about a world to which he can never truly return, and bid him a safe journey.