Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Alex Turner is one bitter little twit. That’s an observation, not a judgment, and it’s one of the big reasons the Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not has convinced an excitable faction of the music press to find hope yet again for the future of rock ‘n’ roll–that and the fact that it’s the fastest-selling debut album in UK chart history. The singer’s bad attitude places him in quite reputable company, after all–the British pop pantheon abounds with bitter little twits. Johnny Rotten, Elvis Costello, Morrissey–each reinvigorated the music with the same sort of sarcasm, contempt, and righteous outrage you might hear echoed in Turner’s detailed indictment of Sheffield nightlife. Their double-edged wit, though–that maybe not so much. Turner’s critique is joyless, single-minded, and reportorial, falling so far short of visionary that it may well signal the beginning of a disheartening new era in the BLT tradition.
Turner’s eye is undoubtedly sharp. The album’s lead cut, “The View From the Afternoon,” deposits us on his home turf, a Northern England where the anticipation of Saturday-night thrills inevitably dissolves into a dumb, drunken blur of cash-gobbling fruit machines, maudlin late-night text messages, and lascivious taunts from wicked women leaning out limousine windows “in bunny ears and devil horns.” And the band’s tight, knotty postpunk, with its volatile, irregular rhythms and its tuneful guitars taking sour turns, is an ideal vehicle for his uncomfortably detailed observations. The Monkeys tidy up the Libertines’ slovenly jumbles, which shouldn’t work–imprecision is that band’s essence, with tunes emerging from the accidental cohesion of haphazard riffs. But Whatever replaces thrilling carelessness with an aggressive tension that keeps the sound lively. Its hard, jittery grooves are as unforgiving as the lyrics.
Turner spares no target, no matter how easy. He unnecessarily skewers long-dead delusions of a West Side Story-style working class on “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” overstating his case with lines like “Oh there isn’t no love, no Montagues or Capulets / Just banging tunes in DJ sets and / Dirty dancefloors and dreams of naughtiness.” A nice touch, that last bit, aimed squarely at any club hoppers pretentious enough to imagine they’re somehow subversively decadent. “All this drinking and fucking,” Turner seems to say, “it’s just stupid children being naughty.” But like so many malcontents before him, he soon brings the brunt of his frustrations to bear on women. “Still Take You Home” is downright rancid spew, mocking the fake tan and tawdry allure of an anonymous party girl and then accelerating to the payoff: “What do you know? / You know nothing / But I’ll still take you home.” Though Turner’s bile is heartfelt, it’s also impersonal. Lacking the cruel intimacy of Costello or (to choose a closer antecedent) Graham Parker, it cuts less deeply.
Turner does recognize that he’s as contemptible as he is contemptuous–he could very well be the “sexy little swine” of “Dancing Shoes,” all dressed up for a night out but petrified of the women he longs to bed. His self-loathing might’ve rooted him in the real world, where everyone is flawed, and made him easier to identify with–but because no actual human beings are allowed to intrude into his songs, it merely reinforces his solipsism. Though the band sometimes shoves him past self-pity, playing too fast and bristly to let him get bogged down dwelling on things, even then he’s unremittingly literal, unable to see beyond his immediate surroundings.
As working-class snapshots go this is Saturday Night Fever with Holden Caulfield in place of Tony Manero, so preoccupied with grumbling about phonies he never bothers to dance. It takes a special man to get me to root for overzealous bouncers and rude cabdrivers, but Turner pulls it off with his anticharismatic complaining. The anti-music-biz tirade of “Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong But…” is so strident it even makes me sympathetic toward industry lowlifes–and should the Monkeys’ hype pan out internationally, we can expect plenty of sequels, plus acutely observed gripes about dumb groupies, unmet tour riders, and the barrenness of hotel rooms.
If on the other hand it all goes south, Turner can always settle down and compose vicious letters to the editor about car alarms and babies crying in movie theaters. All bitter little twits must someday age into cynical old farts, and our man’s got a good head start. Fortuitous that is, too–Turner’s contempt for mindless pleasure ought to correspond neatly with that of certain middle-aged rock fans in search of “real” music. (Young Americans may be a harder sell–why import a twitchy ball of angry self-loathing with convoluted woman issues when there’s already so much emo?) Whether Turner’s conscious of it or not, his songs feed off a widespread suspicion that we’ve all been gypped, that 60s pleasure politics have dead-ended in commercialized hedonism, and that anyone who’s convinced he’s enjoying himself is to blame–an attitude you’re more likely to encounter among folks who remember the 60s, at least in the States.
Anyone singing that old tune is practically guaranteed an audience in the UK, of course, where mindless fun has been arousing suspicion at least since the rise of punk. But today’s wet-blanket bands lack the historical perspective, political commitment, or arty wit to imagine any alternative. Sometimes it seems they can’t imagine fun at all, mindless or otherwise. That failing was exemplified last year by the Kaiser Chiefs’ “I Predict a Riot,” which cast London as a lurid postmodern Gomorrah, overrun by track-suited goons and half-naked women–it was practically a parody of suburban paranoia about the evils of the big city. Turner inhabits just such a scene, and in the title of one Arctic Monkeys tune he declares that it’s missing “A Certain Romance.” In fact he uses the R word repeatedly throughout the album, though only to denote a vague concept he seems to define as little more than what drab everyday life lacks. The Monkeys flesh out that dissatisfaction with their thrashing, vigorous sound, and that may very well be good news for the future of rock ‘n’ roll. But that’s as far as the band gets–Turner can’t find a better use for his acute self-awareness than insisting he’s the smartest asshole in the pub.
Arctic Monkeys, Spinto Band
When: Sat 3/18, 7 PM
Where: Metro, 3730 N. Clark
Price: $12, sold out
Info: 773-549-0203 or 312-559-1212
More: For a different take on the Arctic Monkeys, see the Treatment in Section 3.