Arctic Monkeys

Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

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Breathless, hyperbolic praise was piled upon the Arctic Monkeys and their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, an instant phenomenon without peer. Within the course of a year, the band rose from the ranks of an Internet phenomenon to the biggest band in the U.K., all on the strength of early demos circulated on the Web as MP3s. Those demos built the band a rabid fan base before the Monkeys had released a record, even before they played more than a handful of gigs. In effect, the group performed a complete run around the industry, avoiding conventional routes toward stardom, which paid off in spades. When Whatever People Say I Am hit the streets in January 2006, it sold a gob-smacking 118,501 copies within its first week of release, which not only made it the fastest-selling debut ever, but it sold more than the rest of the Top 20 combined -- a remarkable achievement by any measure.

Last time such excitement surrounded a new British guitar band it was a decade earlier, as Britpop hit overdrive with the release of Oasis' 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe. All four members of the Arctic Monkeys were a little bit shy of their tenth birthday at the time, a bit young to be sure, but old enough to have Oasis be their first favorite band. So, it's little surprise that the Gallaghers' laddism -- celebrating nights out fueled by lager and loud guitars -- is the bedrock foundation of the Arctic Monkeys, just the way as it has been for most British rock bands since the mid-'90s, but the Monkeys' true musical ground zero is 2001, the year the Strokes stormed British consciousness with their debut, Is This It. The Arctic Monkeys borrow heavily from the Strokes' stylized ennui, adding an equal element of the Libertines' shambolic neo-classicist punk, undercut by a hint of dance-punk learned from Franz Ferdinand. But where the Strokes, the Libertines, and Franz all knowingly reference the past, this Sheffield quartet is only concerned with the now, piecing together elements of their favorite bands as lead singer/songwriter Alex Turner tells stories from their lives -- mainly hookups on the dancefloor and underage drinking, balanced by the occasional imagined tragic tales of prostitution and the music industry.

Whatever People Say I Am captures the band mashing up the Strokes and the Libertines at will, jamming in too many angular riffs into too short of a space, tearing through the songs as quickly as possible. But where the Strokes camouflaged their songwriting skills with a laconic, take-it-or-leave-it sexiness and where the Libertines mythologized England with a junkie poeticism, the Arctic Monkeys at their heart are simple, everyday lads, lacking any sense of sex appeal or romanticism, or even the desire for either. Nor do they harbor much menace, either in their tightly wound music or in how Turner spits out his words. Also, the dry production, sounding for all the world like an homage to Is This It -- all clanking guitars and clattering drums, with most of the energy coming from the group's sloppy call-and-response backing vocals -- keeps things rather earthbound, too; the band doesn't soar with youthful abandon, it merely raises a bit of noise in the background.

In a way, Whatever People Say I Am is an ideal album for the Information Overload Age -- nearly every track here is overloaded with riffs and words, and just when it's about to sort itself out, it stops short. But even if it's an album of and for its time, Whatever People Say I Am doesn't sound particularly fresh. After all, the Arctic Monkeys are reworking the sounds of a revival without any knowledge -- or even much interest -- in the past, so they wind up with a patchwork of common sounds, stitched together in ways that may have odd juxtapositions, but usually feel familiar, because they're so green, they repeat the same patterns without realizing they're treading a well-worn path.

This, of course, doesn't make them or their debut bad, just surprisingly predictable: they're competent, lacking enough imagination or restlessness to do anything other than the expected, which for anybody who hears them after reading the reviews, is quite underwhelming. The one thing that sets them apart, and does give them promise, is Alex Turner's writerly ambitions. While he may fall far short of fellow Sheffield lyricist Jarvis Cocker, or such past teenage renegades as Paul Weller, Turner does illustrate ample ambition here. While his words can be overcooked -- allusions to Romeo & Juliet do not necessarily count as depth -- he does tell stories, which does distinguish him from his first-person peers. But it's a double-edged sword, his gift: the very thing that sets him apart -- his fondness for detail, his sense of place -- may be the quality that makes his work resonate for thousands of young Britons, but they also tie him completely to a particular time and place that makes it harder to relate to for listeners who aren't in his demographic or country (and perhaps time). If his band had either a stronger musical viewpoint or more kinetic energy, or if their songs didn't play like a heap of riffs, such provincial shortcomings would be transcended by the sheer force of the music. But the music, while good, is not great, and that's what makes Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not a curiosity that defines a time when niches are so specialized and targeted, they turn into a phenomenon overnight and last just about as long.

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