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23 June 2023

The contradictions of Arctic Monkeys

In the run-up to their headline Glastonbury set, the band defied the creative arc of their late career by shutting up and playing the hits.

By Fergal Kinney

Alex Turner does not say very much. On stage on Friday 16 June at north London’s 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, the Arctic Monkeys frontman and songwriter utters a thank you, some affable praise for the support acts and an interchangeable exclamation of “London!” Last week it was their home city of Sheffield. Next week it will be the headline slot at Glastonbury, for the third time. Or at least, it might be – on 18 June the band announced on social media that Turner had acute laryngitis and cancelled their Tuesday show in Dublin, temporarily putting the Glastonbury show in doubt.

In 2023, as the band embark on a summer of festivals alongside their first-ever stadium tour, Arctic Monkeys are the last British guitar band – for now, perhaps forever – in the mould of four lads that shook the world. In 2023, they have been together longer than that position’s previous occupants, Oasis. Unlike that band, they have found both consistent US success and convincing late-period work. But where Oasis’s appeal was straightforward, in 2023 Arctic Monkeys are a stadium-sized bundle of contradictions.   

When Turner takes to the stage, it’s as though he’s playing the lead in a big-budget rock biopic – Cuban heels, shagpile hair backswept, flying saucer-sized sunglasses. It’s a visual genuflection to rock classicism underscored by the staging’s soft retrofuturist sheen, pitched somewhere between the minimal electric blues of David Bowie’s mid-Seventies live albums and what seems to be an oblique reference to Sheffield’s Seventies and Eighties snooker World Championship staging (there is a historic snooker reference buried within the band’s most recent album, The Car). Where other bands might reach the back of the stadium through communal gestures, on Friday night opener “Brianstorm” – a wiry, hyperfast 2007 single – Arctic Monkeys can rely on the sheer affect of Matt Helders’ pulverising drumming, the motor of their early material. And though Turner never looks begrudging or uncomfortable performing that early material, such as 2005’s paean to Blair-era nightclubbing “From the Ritz to the Rubble”, it takes the romantic and pastoral “Cornerstone” (2009) to activate the performer: all Elvis hand gestures and collapsing to his knees.

[See also: The Proclaimers are still Britain’s best male rock singers]

There’s an Arctic Monkeys album in the UK top 20 right now, but it’s not their most recent album, 2022’s The Car. It’s AM, which caught the public imagination with its monolithic riffing and sunglasses-indoors Los Angeles rock fantasy, and has hid from the top 100 for only one week in the decade since it came out in 2013. Following that career-defining album, the band changed tack dramatically. In 2018, they released Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, a woozy, piano-driven satire of political and technological elites. Set entirely in space. Where once Turner sang about taxi ranks and riot vans, here he crooned in a new-found falsetto about swimming with economists and cultural critic Neil Postman’s theory of the information-action ratio. The Car was billed as a return to usual, and yet for their audience it proved anything but. It was critically praised but commercially underwhelming, ending their previously unbroken run of chart-topping albums and heightening the contradictions for Britain’s biggest guitar band. The working- and lower-middle-class provincial signifiers of their early work is vanished, the world of their last two records being closer to the opulent elitism of Roxy Music or Scott Walker.   

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In 2023, pop is comfortable with renewal and absorbing stylistic changes. This summer, Beyoncé performs her house-influenced Renaissance album almost in its entirety to packed stadiums. Taylor Swift’s Eras tour recaps each of her albums as its own separate and epochal event. Rock, meanwhile, can only be a continuity candidate. Arctic Monkeys do not attempt to spotlight the material that has made up their last two albums; 16 of the 21 songs on their current setlist are ones they were performing ten years ago, and will likely be performing in ten years time.

On the evidence of the albums they make now, the band that Arctic Monkeys want to be appears to be one like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – where Turner’s increasingly complex compositions can be allowed the time and space to properly stew. (The band have covered Cave’s song “Red Right Hand”.) But on tour, Alex Turner finds himself singing a song from 2005 about dancing like a robot from 1984. (Some of this is economics too. In a moment where rapidly accelerating ticket prices and fees have become a political issue, the contract between artists and audiences has become tetchier.)

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[See also: How Janis Joplin set the template for rock’s outcasts]

When they do air tracks from their recent albums, such as the 2022 single “Body Paint” – delivered late in the set as the north London sky darkens – they are terrific. Hinged around a stately McCartney-esque chorus, “Body Paint” swells from baroque pop to a noisy and thunderous coda. A criticism of Arctic Monkeys on record is that their albums can be too pristine, sounding fussy and slightly airless. Here, though, as Turner and Jamie Cook trade competing guitar solos at the song’s climax, it’s messy and exciting, and sounds like a band within a band trying to break free.

After that, it’s curious to watch Turner deliver “Mardy Bum”, enormously popular in this audience and as warm a dollop of early Noughties comfort food as the opening of Gavin and Stacey. (When the band performed it on the first night of their UK tour dates, it was the first time they had played it live in more than ten years.) But the track is slowed down, and Turner sings off and away from the beat, chewing the lyrics to thwart the song’s communality rather than midwife it. One song that does speak to Arctic Monkeys’ longevity, though, is an unexpectedly powerful “Fluorescent Adolescent”. Written by Turner in 2007 with his then-partner Johanna Bennett, the ska-pop track is a preternaturally wise pen-portrait of a woman looking back wistfully in mourning at her former sex life (key lyric: “the best you’ve ever had is just a memory”). Performed now by a more mature singer to a millennial audience nostalgically experiencing the songs they grew up posting on MSN profiles and Tumblr pages, it feels poignant. And though the audience is rowdy, they are no longer raucous: only once do I see a flying pint – journeying across the audience like a shooting star.

Arctic Monkeys are at this moment a puzzling prospect. There are worse problems for an artist to have than weighing the balance between creativity and commerce on stage in front of a packed stadium. The Sheffield four-piece contradict the creative arc of their late career by shutting up and playing the hits. But at what cost?

This article was originally published on 20 June.

[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]

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