Arctic Monkeys in the middle

The band's second CD is good, but it lacks the raw aggression of the first. What's next?

Published May 4, 2007

Arctic Monkeys

Favourite Worst Nightmare (Domino)

Grade: B-

When we first met the Arctic Monkeys, the blue-collar scruffs from Sheffield, England, could barely afford to buy a girl a drink.

Their debut disc, 2006's revelatory Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, was built on frustration and instinct, as the indie kids raged about being poor, raising hell, getting snubbed by rich girls, repeat, repeat, repeat. The album sounded like it was recorded in one take - or as long as it took the band to chain-smoke a carton of cheap cigs.

Thanks in part to the raw guitars, frisky beats and cash-poor malaise, the Arctic Monkeys became the fastest-selling new band in British history, moving almost 400,000 copies of Whatever in its first week. Overnight, the rockers, all just 19- and 20-years-old, went from struggling to famous, suddenly having fat wallets to woo the upper-class birds.

That was great news for the Monkeys - but what about their music? What does whiplash success do to a band inspired by fast food, romantic rejection and living check to check?

The bittersweet answer is found on Favourite Worst Nightmare, as anticipated a sophomore effort as we'll see all year.

Led by singer-guitarist-lyricist Alex Turner, the Monkeys continue to rock about the beauties and beasties they meet in the clubs where they loiter. But fame has provided a new vantage point.

Killer opening cut Brianstorm, about a nouveau riche Lothario, is their fastest, hardest song yet. It's a speed-metal indictment of a ladykilling creep who seduces women into his posh hot tub. But it's not just a cheap dig. With his guitar sounding like it's surfing a fatal wave, Turner is unnerved by this dude, realizing that the titular Brian is exactly who he doesn't want to be. Drummer Matt Helders, still the band's secret weapon, pounds the skins as hard and fast as he can, almost as if he's trying to chase the image of Brian from his brain.

On Fluorescent Adolescent, a chummy pub sing-along, the Monkeys reminisce about the good ol' days with a former club queen turned suburban matron. The boys can't be too hard on her, because they know they, too, have changed. "The best you ever had is just a memory," Turner croons with more than a hint of melancholy.

A steady touring schedule has made the Monkeys far better musicians, and that, oddly enough, is where the bad news starts.

What's missing from Nightmare is that previous sense of recklessness, pent-up aggression that could and did explode at any second. The Monkeys are now more polished, more controlled, their songs featuring layers and layers of fancy parts.

Losing the edge

Unfortunately, the band is also more stable, more sane, more content. Teddy Picker ridicules the machinations of fame, including the soulless entertainment press. But the song's rebellion sounds forced; it's missing the crucial ingredient of genuine emotion. Often a wickedly acerbic songwriter, Turner just can't muster the knockout punch. ("D'you reckon that they make 'em take an oath?/That says 'We are defenders of any poseur or professional pretender around.'")

The most troubling part of the new album, however, is that the Monkeys don't seem to be having much fun. In fact, on the gauzy Only Ones Who Know, the band gets a bad case of the touchy-feely Coldplay blahs. Yes, there were slow songs on the first disc, but they were hungover laments mocking the cops. Big difference.

Okay, let's give the guys some credit: Favourite Worst Nightmare was turned around lickety-split to ride the band's buzz, and it's still more inventive than most rock albums out there. But the expectations were huge for Turner & Co. And as their star continues to rise and their bank accounts continue to grow, the band has a big challenge ahead. Where does a previously poor Monkey find passion, grit and fire when his pint glass is always full, the rich girls won't stay away and the world expects greatness with every hot lick?

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.