Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not Takes Us Back to Their Garage DaysJanuary 23rd, 2021
Editor’s Notes: Consequence has been around long enough that so many of the new albums that originally turned us on to music are now celebrating their first milestone anniversaries. As we begin to reflect on these records, you can catch our updated assessments here.
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” Arctic Monkeys’ vocalist Alex Turner sings on the opening line of Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino. It’s a somewhat ironic statement. The Sheffield indie rockers’ most recent album sounds nothing like The Strokes, especially the opening track “Star Treatment”. The 2018 record is infused with a lounge-jazz, yacht-rock persona with songs that follow Odyssean orbits rather than traditional verse-chorus patterns. With the Arctic Monkeys that fans are familiar with now, going back to their 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, feels like a seismic shift.
Arctic Monkeys have had an unusual sonic trajectory. Then a quartet, the band started out making blistering, unvarnished garage rock. They were active participants in the well-documented revival of the genre, with bands such as The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and The White Stripes instigating it in the United States while The Libertines echoed it across the pond. Alex Turner and Co. weren’t exactly mimicking their contemporaries, though. They were doing their own thing, and the band would prove so with each new record. Over the course of six albums, they’ve moved from raw garage rock to desert-inspired slow burners, from arena anthems to psychedelic lounge tunes. There are few things this band can’t do.
Since Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Arctic Monkeys have also become a global festival force. They’ve headlined events such as Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza, and Glastonbury. Alongside big indie acts like The National, Tame Impala, and Vampire Weekend, Arctic Monkeys have cemented themselves in the festival canon, commonly appearing in the coveted big fonts. They’re a band with aspirations as grand as their appeal, but none of that would have happened without the crucial foundation laid on their full-length debut 15 years ago.
It may be their first record, but it cast the British indie rockers in a nascent, yet fully formed light. Alex Turner, drummer Matt Helders, guitarist Jamie Cook, and former bassist Andy Nicholson were all remarkably young when this was written, recorded, and released. This precociousness permeates the album, with most of the lyrical material consisting of Turner’s astute observations of Sheffield’s nightlife. However, rather than dismiss all of it as depraved and superficial, Turner is an active contender, or rather, his characters are. “Dancing Shoes” follows the narrative of a man who’s too nervous to initiate conversation in a club, and “Fake Tales of San Francisco” describes an insincere band that sings about San Francisco despite having never been there. The entire album itself looks at various characters and their experiences with Sheffield’s nightlife from Saturday evening to Sunday morning. These songs are distillations of what happens in this town when the sun goes down.
Opener “The View from the Afternoon” kicks everything off by setting up the story, and lead single “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” rewinds to the beginning of the night. Throughout the album’s roughly 40-minute runtime, Turner details myriad aspects of the evening, such as prostitution (“When the Sun Goes Down”), underage drinking (“Riot Van”), and overly aggressive bouncers (“From the Ritz to the Rubble”). No two songs are the same, but they’re all woven together with propulsive drumming and thrashing guitars, a style seldom heard on subsequent releases such as AM or Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino. That’s not to say those albums are bad (because they’re both excellent), but it shows just how much this band has altered their creative approach.
The infamous leaked demos of the songs from Whatever People Say I Am displays them at an even earlier stage. Titled Beneath the Boardwalk, the songs are still available on YouTube, and many eager fans were able to listen to these songs before they were properly released. These demos, obviously, don’t sound nearly as polished as their final counterparts, but it’s fascinating to hear their origins and how these tracks developed into the fan favorites they’ve become. Arctic Monkeys’ label, Domino Recording Company, released their debut a week ahead of schedule on Jan. 23. Domino didn’t cite Beneath the Boardwalk as the reason, but the label did the same thing for Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut, which also leaked online.
These leaked demos speak to how much anticipation had been built around this band. There’s a reason it went on to become one of the fastest-selling debut albums ever made. The British music press, such as the NME, certainly played a vital role, but it was undeniable that these were great songs. In the official music video for “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” [see above], Turner introduces the band, and before launching into the performance, he tells viewers, “Don’t believe the hype.” It was difficult not to be captivated by Arctic Monkeys, though. You could argue that Arctic Monkeys were initially a British version of The Strokes, but that’s not entirely true. The Libertines were more akin to the New York quintet, but The Libertines didn’t have the staying power of Arctic Monkeys.
Whereas The Strokes toyed with swung rhythms and mostly laid-back songs, Arctic Monkeys played fast. The band’s unwavering energy is palpable on nearly every track. Helders’ drums carry the band to swift speeds, and, today, Arctic Monkeys don’t even play their older material at the same tempo, frequently slowing down live performances of songs from their first two records; they just can’t keep up with their younger selves. Almost all 13 tracks are loud, brash, and quick, demanding the listener’s full attention. They did not intend to be background music.
It’s difficult to discuss Whatever People Say I Am… without mentioning the stunning closer, “A Certain Romance”. It’s one of the few tracks on the album that isn’t injected with pure adrenaline; it’s a song that gradually builds upon itself and introduces new components as time passes. “A Certain Romance” is the perfect way to end this record, and it ties up Turner’s nightlife narrative from a lyrical standpoint, as well. As much as he may criticize the characters in his story, he can’t censure the people closest to him. “But over there, there’s friends of mine/ What can I say? I’ve known ‘em for a long, long time/ But you just cannot get angry in the same way,” he sings. It’s part of the final stanza on Whatever People Say I Am, and as cynical as Turner’s storytelling can sometimes be, the record ends on an unexpectedly optimistic note.
When he sings, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes” on 2018’s “Star Treatment”, Turner follows it up with the line, “Now look at the mess you made me make.” It could be read as the wandering perceptions of a washed-up, former rock star, but taken at an autobiographical level, they ring with a different message. Arctic Monkeys started out as a group of Sheffield teenagers who made music in a garage. Now they’re one of the world’s biggest rock bands, and Whatever People Say I Am… established them as musical mainstays. Alex Turner may have wanted to be one of The Strokes, but Arctic Monkeys are so much more.
Pick up a copy of Whatever People Say I Am… here.
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not Artwork
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