It would be a natural impulse to dislike the Arctic Monkeys on principle. Their debut, last year’s Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, sold 360,000 copies its first week in England, based on one single, some Internet demos, and a deafening buzz. It became their country’s fastest-selling debut CD, making them ”one of the most important British bands of all time,” to quote one U.K. music writer — a breed known for using hyperbole the way Emeril does garlic.
So dismissing them as another overhyped British act would be understandable — but also wrongheaded, at least if you love loud, fast, witty rock songs. And while their second set, Favourite Worst Nightmare, may not be as revelatory as the first, it’s nearly as good, and suggests they may eventually live up to the most impassioned accolades. Still, they have some convincing to do Stateside: Despite ranking high on numerous 2006 best-of lists, Whatever’s first-year-plus sales haven’t even matched that first week in England.
Nightmare’s lead single, ”Brianstorm” — an oblique dis (or tribute?) to a ladies’ man — may not be the best transatlantic come-on lyrically, but it’s a musical thrill ride that seems engineered for coke-fired dance-clubbers, with its high-speed high hat, fuzzed-out bass line, explosive heavy-metal opening, and spectacular false ending. No doubt these lads, ranging in age from 20 to 21, can play their riffs, which are steeped (sometimes excessively) in those of grizzled ’00s vets like the Strokes and the Vines, with a few older echoes.
But their lyrics set them apart, with verses that can stand alongside those by Stephen Sondheim, Nas, and Dylan Thomas on Wikipedia’s internal rhyme page. ”Now the shaggers perform and the daggers are drawn,” frontman Alex Turner slurs on ”Balaclava.” The Monkeys grew up on hip-hop, and while they’re not rap-rockers, they know how playful poetics and regional flavor can be more pleasurable than mass-market lingua franca.
Whatever shone with details about working-class youth culture in the group’s hometown of Sheffield. Nightmare is less culturally specific — a minus. But on the best tracks, when Turner dreams of a distant lover (”…lying on your side, with your hands between your thighs”) or an unhappily reformed party girl (”You used to get it in your fishnets/Now you only get it in your nightdress”), it feels more intimate — a plus. The latter tune sounds like a mere insult until he casually addresses the subject as ”my love,” and you glimpse a hurt smart-ass counting down his own rabble-rousing days. It’s the sort of wisdom, and emotion, of which rock poet laureates are made. B+