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From the Ritz to the Rubble? 15 Years of Arctic Monkeys

I must admit that when the Arctic Monkeys released their debut album fifteen years ago, I was only three-years-old. Not to mention I wasn’t even living in the UK. I wasn’t there at The Boardwalk in Sheffield when they were starting out, and I certainly wasn’t acquainted with the wonders of MySpace, where the album first gained popularity. I couldn’t even relate to the lyrics: tales of nightclub antics and prostitution and a subculture so utterly British that it’s unsurprising that ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ defined a generation.

But while I can’t truly claim membership of said generation, this album helped define me nonetheless. A whole ten years after it was released, I remember listening to one of my dad’s compilation CDs. Track 14 piqued my interest: loud, gritty guitar and an almost pubescent-sounding voice that was so unmistakably northern – this was ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’, from their debut album. For me, this song sparked a discovery and appreciation of rock music that characterised my teenage years, and laid the groundwork for the (objectively superior) music taste I have today.

But it turned out I had a lot of catching up to do. With the fastest-selling debut album in the history of British music, the Arctic Monkeys had risen to fame with lightning speed. Three albums and two Glastonbury headline sets later, I had to practically throw myself onto the bandwagon as they released their fifth album, ‘AM’, in 2013. But comparing these two albums directly felt like listening to two different artists. The suave and sinister love songs of ‘AM’ seemed worlds away from the angsty, indie post-punk sound of their debut. It lacked the energy of classics such as ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, and had lyrics nowhere near as down-to-earth as ‘When The Sun Goes Down’, or as unromantic as ‘A Certain Romance’. Even Alex Turner’s voice sounded like it had dropped several octaves and gained a sort of sultry slur, with the Sheffield accent only noticeable if you really listened for it. Their image was also unrecognisable: what had been four awkward and scruffy-looking boys, playing gigs in jeans and T-shirts and unbrushed hair, had become four young men with gelled quiffs, black suits and a sophisticated ‘rock and roll’ image not quite so British anymore. Nevertheless, ‘AM’ was a huge hit, with guitarists Turner and Jamie Cook, and bassist Nick O’Malley, giving us unforgettable guitar riffs that displayed a new depth to their music.

It was their latest work, ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ (2018), that caused the greatest uproar. The entire album feels like some sort of space-age psychosis, with its Bowie-esque glam rock and notable absence of guitar leaving many fans disillusioned. Claims that it was ‘too different’ and that they’d ‘strayed from their roots’ were widespread. But why should we expect artists to maintain a consistent sound and style throughout their entire career? Not only is this unrealistic and almost philistine, it also disregards the blatant musical development we see in the band’s earlier albums.

‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ (2007) takes their first album and matures it: its themes and sounds inherently darker and often melancholy, with tracks like ‘Brianstorm’ treating us to the intoxicatingly frantic drumming of Matt ‘Agile Beast’ Helders. To go from that to ‘Humbug’ (2009) feels like slamming down on the brakes. This album is moody, lovelorn and psychedelic. With its simultaneously calmer and creepier sound it showcased a new side to the band (not to mention the iconic long ‘Humbug’ hair they all shared). Meanwhile, ‘Suck It and See’ (2011) gives us a series of acoustic pop-rock love songs that hint at Turner’s lyrical shift from coarse and witty one-liners to abstract metaphors, a writing style reminiscent of the likes of Leonard Cohen.

With this in mind, ‘AM’ and ‘Tranquility Base’ don’t deserve the criticism they get for being ‘too different’. They don’t represent a sudden rejection of the band’s origins, or the pretentious Americanisation of British rock that Turner mourns in ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’. These albums show that the Arctic Monkeys have simply grown and changed as we all do, and we’ve been lucky enough to witness it.

On its 15th anniversary, we can appreciate ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ as the timeless masterpiece that it truly is. It was undoubtedly the best of its time, its success and influence still palpable today. But to reduce the entirety of the Arctic Monkeys’ sound, style and legacy to this starting point would be a mistake. Their music represents a constantly evolving expression of their creative instincts, and an expansion of their musical and intellectual horizons. And so, if Alex Turner suddenly develops a fetish for piano, futurism and technological critique, who are we to claim that this is too unlike himself? It is simply testament to how far the band have come since their youthful homage to the unglamorous realities of ordinary life.