One second, silence. The next, you’re overcome by a maelstrom of bass guitars and drumbeats that have you wondering if you’re going to make it out of this thing alive. In comes a fuzzed-out surf guitar, still slightly dangerous but a bit more familiar, which pulls you in until it meets back up with the bass to form the kind of angry little melody that’s become something of a trademark for this band. You’re not quite safe, but at least you know where you are. Welcome to the first track of Favourite Worst Nightmare, the sophomore effort from Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys.
A few things have changed since we last heard the Arctics in proper LP form. For one, the lineup has changed, with Nick O’Malley supplanting Andy Nicholson on bass. Second, the band’s Horatio Alger story and its status as flag-bearer for the MySpace revolution has been relegated to the background (thankfully), leaving Favourite Worst Nightmare to stand on its own in a way that its predecessor, last year’s Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, never had to.
And this time around, vocalist Alex Turner isn’t quite as obsessed with lifting the veil over the youth culture in Britain as he is with figuring out what’s going on inside his head. Favourite Worst Nightmare doesn’t prey upon teenage commonalities the way the debut did with such élan. The lyrics still have a keen narrative eye, but gone are the bouncers, riot vans, and knackered Converse. Fittingly, producer James Ford (let’s drop all of that “new rave” business, shall we?) has crafted a sound for the band that’s considerably darker and more chaotic than what we’ve heard from these guys in the past. And, oh yeah, the songs are pretty good, too.
Really good, actually.
There’s lead single and opener “Brianstorm,” which, in the span of less than three minutes, manages to fully explore many of the musical ideas (specifically, how many cool tricks can you pull off with a distorted guitar) first posed on the band’s debut. That’s followed by “Teddy Picker,” a dark number that matches “Fake Tales of San Francisco” stride-for-stride, from its intro guitar right down to its lyrical mocking of all things inauthentic (“We are defenders/ Of any poseur or professional pretender around.”)
“Fluorescent Adolescent” is the album’s most accessible tune, an obvious second single that out of all the songs here will resonate most strongly with the crowd that made Whatever People Say I Am such a success. It introduces us to a girl who’s realizing that her romantic life isn’t quite what it used to be (“Flicking through a little book of sex tips/ Remember when the boys were all electric?”), an airy ska-ish jangle topped with a few shimmering guitars.
The two big leaps forward here, though, are “Do Me a Favour” and “505.” The former would seem to concern the breakup of Turner and his girlfriend, which occurred during the fifteen-month gap between albums. This, in and of itself, doesn’t break any new lyrical ground, but just how convincingly the band is able to convey this sense of lament and frustration is remarkable: The final presentation of the chorus is proceeded by a burst of guitars that puts everything we heard in “A Certain Romance” to shame, as Turner woefully croons, “And do me a favor, and ask if you need some help/ She said, do me a favor and stop flattering yourself.” It’s heartbreaking, plain and simple. The slow-building “505” operates in a similar vein, with Turner telling us of his desire to get back to (room?) 505, where he plans to reconcile with the girl lying on her side, only things don’t work out quite so well. It’s the closest thing we have to an epic here.
Favourite Worst Nightmare is tempered by a few duds — “Balaclava” and “If You Were There, Beware,” please stand up — but more than that, it’s kind of joyless. Whatever People Say I Am may have been sarcastic and critical, but it wasn’t jaded: The best moment on that album comes during closer “A Certain Romance,” when Turner utters the lines, “Over there, there’s friends of mine/ what can I say, I’ve known ’em for a long, long time,” and, with a shrug of his shoulders, indicts himself along with all of the other characters he’d been so humorously harsh to over the previous twelve tracks. It’s not quite the meditation on the perils of fame that so many awful second albums are, but Favourite Worst Nightmare features little of that playfulness. This isn’t the album that will make you dance “to electro-pop like a robot from 1984.”
It’s exceedingly difficult to judge a sophomore album that appears less than a year and a half after its predecessor; in fact, it’s probably better to think of Favourite Worst Nightmare as “the record Arctic Monkeys released in 2007” rather than Arctic Monkeys’ sophomore album. This is a startlingly productive outfit, and it would be unwise to assume that the songs here are indicative of the direction Arctic Monkeys will be heading. The band’s potential, though, is now officially undeniable. These kids are only about twenty-one years old, and although Favourite Worst Nightmare doesn’t prove Arctic Monkeys to be the best rock band in the world, it does seem now like it could only be a matter of time before something does.