The Arctic Monkeys first appeared on American shores acrest a great tidal wave of hype. They were the Band that Blogs Broke, scruffy Northern England kids who’d found a way around the record label payola machine that favored the packaged and processed over the immediate and honest. They’d distributed their album for free online, garnered a few well-placed fawning reviews, played a series of triumphant, sold-out London shows, and suddenly they were the latest and greatest Saviors of Rock. With a little help from the independent Domino label, they’d proved that an enormous amount of publicity could be generated almost free of charge. They were the gleeful, punkish David to the lumbering, sickly Goliath of the record industry. Suddenly it seemed that grass roots could grow into tall wheat overnight.
And the story was true, as far as it goes. But despite all the hyperbolic reviews and opinion pieces using the band as an exemplar of how The Internet Will Change Everything Forever, there’s not much that’s particularly fringey or independent about the Arctic Monkeys’ sound. It’s the same brand of fast, sneering guitar rock that’s always dominated the post-Libertines UK. Their impressive Horatio Alger story is weakened by the fact that they’re precisely the sort of group that would likely have had great success under the the traditional label system—it just would have taken a little longer. They write catchy tunes with clever lyrics, slam out stiff rhythmic chords on electric guitars, and deliver the goods with a cheeky bounce. And so now, one LP and one EP out from their debut (which the unremittingly hyperbolic, almost self-parodying magazine NME declared the fifth best British album of all time), the fervor has largely died down, leaving a solid, unassuming lad-rock band standing in its wake. And on their newly released CD and DVD Live at the Apollo, they headline in Manchester, still blinking the stardust from their eyes.
Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re still a bit addled from the sudden rush of fortune and glory. Despite all the playful charm of his lyrics and the sardonic sneer of his vocals, lead singer Alex Turner displays exactly zero stage presence, staring blankly out at the crowd, casually tapping his foot with the beat as though he’s waiting for a crosstown bus. Director Richard Ayoade seems to be under the impression that Turner has some kind of star quality, because he mostly keeps the camera fixed firmly on the frontman as he stands there, inert. I’m not looking for Pete Townsend windmills and powerslides here—is the occasional smile or sneer or shimmy to much to ask? Some bands can be forgiven for aloof, frosty temperaments, but this isn’t Radiohead or Sonic Youth or Leonard Cohen—we’re talking about blistering British pop-punk here. A little showmanship and energy are called for. Even when they speed up the tempo to a breakneck pace, it feels less like they’re tearing it up than rushing slap-dashthrough their set-list, eyes firmly fixed on the afterparty. “Thank you,” Turner mumbles between songs. “I really enjoyed that. No, I mean it. I really mean it.” He convinces no one.
It’s a shame, because the music isn’t half bad. Turner has a way with a stuttering staccato melody and a gift for the clever, biting turn of phrase. The subject matter—run-ins with cops and classmates, dancefloor hookups, hometown claustrophobia—is the shallow and adolescent stuff that’s at the pulse of rock ‘n roll. Turner has a writer’s eye for detail and a sharp ear for tuneful storytelling, and he brings both to bear in his uptempo odes to the gloriously stupid nihilism of youth. It’s a mature and observant mind turned to immature and fleeting subject matter, and the band commits to it, bringing you into their world. For the moment, though, their world seems like a jaded and empty place. Glorious stupidity without pleasure is just joyless yammer. The Arctic Monkeys have been through the full cycle of hype, from fawning to yawning, and they’ve come out the other side hollow and hesitant.
Alex Turner is 23 years old. What’s that in blog years?