The Arctic Monkeys
Favourite Worst Nightmare
his doesn’t feel like the Arctic Monkeys’ second album. Perhaps it’s the alarmingly brief gestation time (fourteen months), but this feels like another first album—not because it doesn’t experiment but because the baggage usually attached to a successful band’s second record is absent here, or so jumbled, jostled, pawed through in customs and mixed up in holds as to be a different kind of baggage altogether. Which may just be the new system, and which we’ll come to.
Certainly most of what would be the first side of Favourite Worst Nightmare takes few chances. “D Is for Dangerous,” “Balaclava,” and first single “Brianstorm” carefully retrace the steps of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, themselves already retraced from decrepit impressions left by decades of snotty minimalists with bad guitar pickups. That the first album managed to trick the listener into believing in immediacy—into swallowing the spit-shine given these museum artifacts—was its great talent; that Alex Turner shouted lyrics that were a little new its great secret. Those who hated the album, hardly thin on the ground, did so out of an acute gag reflex—overcalibrated, perhaps.
But bands that create a closed universe have difficulty repeating themselves. "Brianstorm" is a kind of rush, but difficult to listen to when you know there's an album at its back, and the bouncy "Fluorescent Adolescent" is well-observed but slight. I might not have returned to any of the first five songs more than once were it not my duty.
Favourite Worst Nightmare really begins with “Only One Who Knows,” a song made of electrified strums so slow and gentle it’s a hundred times as ostentatious as the punk chaos it follows. Turner’s vocals, never so much filtered as dragged through some unknowable sonic cheese grater, benefit here from their public-address reediness, buoyed lightly by the clarity of the music instead of consumed by its mud. Of course the Arctic Monkeys didn’t invent reverb and navel-gazing any more than they did buzzsaws, but they’re as good at repackaging it, and besides it isn’t navel-gazing: if there isn’t great insight in Turner’s lyrics, there’s the rare sense of proportion that’s this band’s real draw. “I bet she told a million people that she’d stay in touch” doesn’t know a great deal more about failure than, say, “I bet she always said she’d stay in touch,” but it knows better where to find it.
This kind of melancholy—omnipresent on the first album, but rarely allowed to dictate its sound—pushes braver tentacles farther out on Favourite Worst Nightmare. “Do Me a Favour” lets its guitars weep, gently or not; what’s more, this band has never had as deft a sense of rhythm, which is to say they’ve never been sure it exists at all. There might be too much Franz Ferdinand in “Do Me a Favour,” but there was too little in Whatever People Say, and pushing the bass forward is nothing but good. Ditto for the creepy-crawly “This House Is a Circus,” which nevertheless sinks under a chorus too close to the NME’s slavering chronicles of MADNESS!! and verses whose likening of partygoing ennui to “a search for murder clues / in dead men’s eyes” is even worse than Bloc Party’s subpoenaing of Bret Easton Ellis to do the job for them. This and the confused “Old Yellow Bricks” are failures, but they’re half-failures, listenable ones, whereas Whatever People Say’s “Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong But...” really was as bad as its title and “If You Were There, Beware” really isn’t.
Favourite Worst Nightmare, a demonstrative record of small deviations, may pale before its predecessor but is better. That predecessor ended with “When the Sun Goes Down” and “A Certain Romance,” two songs strung along emotional arcs those preceding them preferred to ignore; Favourite Worst Nightmare ends with “505,” a song similarly pretty but preceded by tracks giving hope to the notion that the Arctic Monkeys might someday discover dynamism isn’t just something you save for your big finish. Their next album might be full of songs like this. Pray against a sophomore slump.