This coming Tuesday, a rock quartet from Sheffield, England, called Arctic Monkeys will release their debut album, an event that has generated near-hysterical levels of anticipation in the United Kingdom. The band first surfaced in late 2004 when demos of their scruffy, witty songs began circulating on the Internet. By the spring of 2005, Arctic Monkeys were the talk of the British pop press, their demos were in heavy rotation on influential BBC Radio 1 programs, their live shows were packed with fans who sang along with every lyric—and they still didn’t have a record deal. For months, record scouts jockeyed to sign the group, but the band remained almost perversely aloof, at one point establishing a policy of turning away A&R men at the doors of their club dates. Finally, in June of last year, Arctic Monkeys signed on with the London-based indie label Domino Records; their debut single, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”,”a torrid little punk-pop song about falling in love in a disco, entered the U.K. singles chart at No. 1, beating out Robbie Williams, the U.K.’s biggest hitmaker of the last decade. It felt like a paradigm shift, and it sounded like one, too.
Roughly every six months, the English music press anoints a new set of pimply young Brits as the Greatest Band Ever. It’s a ritual that says a lot about the entrenched nostalgia and conservatism of the Brits, who are perpetually on the lookout for heroes in the tradition of the Beatles-Stones-Clash. Over the past 15 years, the New Musical Express, England’s influential pop weekly, has hyped countless numbers of forgettable (and now forgotten) white guys with guitars while giving scant coverage to drum-and-bass, grime, and other visionary music that has emerged from the clubs and streets of black Britain. It’s enough to make a Yank suspicious of Arctic Monkeys, whose Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not arrives with more buzz than any British debut since Oasis’ Definitely Maybe a dozen years ago. But lo and behold, the record isn’t just great—it’s perfect.
The music is antic and unrefined. The songs were recorded without any evident overdubs, and it doesn’t sound as if much time was spent fussing around with amplifiers or setting up drum mikes: The band showed up, plugged in, and played. Their punchy garage rock carries echoes of bands past and present: the Jam’s bright melodies and scrappy guitars, Franz Ferdinand’s bursts of ragged funk. But the Arctic Monkeys aren’t revivalists or imitators; their songs are eccentric, following a twisty logic that suggests that the lyrics preceded the music.
And those lyrics are remarkable. Artic Monkeys are fronted by a wiry, intense singer-songwriter named Alex Turner, and he is a poet. Like his bandmates, Turner is “around 19” years old, and he writes stupefyingly precocious songs about the things 19-year-olds think about: being disgusted by trendy indie rockers, getting humiliated by a bouncer at the door of a nightclub, losing your girlfriend to a cooler guy. In “Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts,”he sings: “There’s always somebody taller, with more of a wit/ And he’s equipped to enthrall her, and her friends think he’s fit …/ They’ve got engaged, there’s no intention of a wedding/ He’s pinched your bird and he’ll probably kick your head in.” Turner’s rhymes are as tight—and his quips as sharp—as famous Britpop wits like Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker. (He can do a vivid character sketch in the quick of three lines: “You can see it his eyes/ That he’s got a driving ban/ Amongst some other offenses.”) But he is a more gentle ironist, less self-conscious and more openhearted than the likes of Morrissey, and he writes about relationships with emotional insight that belies his youth:
Yeah I’m sorry I was late
Well I missed the train
And the traffic was a state
But I can’t be arsed to carry on this debate
That reoccurs when you say that I don’t care
Well of course I do, I clearly do …
Remember cuddles in the kitchen
To get things off the ground?
And it was up up and away
Oh but it’s right hard to remember that
On a day like today
It’s a dreary domestic scene, but Turner sketches it with exhilarating vividness. Beyond the pure visceral punch of Arctic Monkeys’ sound, it’s Turner’s command of lyric detail that sets Arctic Monkeys apart, an antidote to the maddening vagueness of so much pop songwriting. Big Britpop groups like Oasis and Coldplay deal almost exclusively in abstractions—fire and desire and rain and pain—apparently believing that the grandeur of their music would evaporate with the mention of anything so mundane as a proper name, let alone something a human being could hold in his hand or buy at a shop. But Turner knows that there’s grandeur in the particular, too, and he finds it in slate-gray slices of post-adolescent, post-industrial Northern English life.
Turner’s terrific rock ’n’ roll singing voice—raspy, insistent, with a syrupy head-cold tone—is a distinctly regional sound, undoubtedly the thickest Yorkshire accent ever committed to record. You can hear the streets of Sheffield’s gritty Neepsend district in Turner’s renderings of words like “out” (owt) and “fucking” (fooken), and you glimpse those streets in songs like “When the Sun Goes Down,”a furious short story about a prostitute and her pimp. Turner has said he grew up listening to rap, and it shows: This is one rocker who represents his hood.
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not will almost certainly top the British charts when it is released next week. Americans will have to wait a bit longer to get their hands on the album (it comes out here Feb. 21). In the meantime, an Internet connection will get you pretty far. There are several Arctic Monkeys songs on iTunes, and with some creative Googling you should be able to scare up the rest. On the band’s Web site you can watch a couple of videos, including a galloping live performance of “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” It begins with a disclaimer from Turner: “We’re Arctic Monkeys,” he says. “Don’t believe the ‘ype.” I beg to differ.