Arctic Monkeys, Brixton Academy, London
Monday 31 August 2009
The Arctic Monkeys play their first UK show in two years with an ease confirming their special status.
With Blur seemingly re-retired, and Radiohead floating above normal rock rules of engagement, they are the most respected UK band still standing. Their singer-songwriter, Alex Turner, always a cool-eyed observer of street-life, wasn't phased by no longer living it, and they recovered from fame's early shock to become a remarkably dextrous rock band. Their new album, Humbug, partly recorded with Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, has been wrongly typed as a switch to harder, more American rock. In fact, it's a continuing evolution into pop and lyrical classicism, where Hendrix meets the Yorkshire folk satirist Jake Thackray as influences, in an elegant, 21st-century version of Cream's White Room.
A dramatically sudden entrance soon leads into a cover of Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand", the diabolic fantasies of which are playfully approached. You'd never mistake the floppy-haired Turner, in his short-sleeved smart-casual shirt, for Nick Cave, much less Old Nick. Any demons he has stay private. It's his calmness on stage, his lack of star presence or messianic pretension, which keeps his band usefully anonymous. It's left to the exact dynamics, thunderous riffs and tumbledown energy of the songs to purge his and the crowd's frustrations. During "Crying Lightning", "Brianstorm" and "Still Take You Home", breathless precision unites them. Their breakthrough hit "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" is sung by fans lost in its precocious lyrics, and a riff tough and tight enough to kick-start a career.
The dusty psychedelic expansiveness of at least one new song, "Dangerous Animals", bares the influence of Josh Homme's desert-rock. In a set dominated by Humbug, "The View From the Afternoon", from their debut, is greeted with relief. I, too, start to miss the precise, humane observation which Turner mostly veils these days. As if in answer, Humbug's best song, "Cornerstone", follows, exuding all the old storytelling warmth. With the Hawaiian guitar of "Only Ones Who Know", and the organ in "Fluorescent Adolescent" recalling some lost 1960s Mecca ballroom, the Arctic Monkeys have re-found their balance: a mixture of the Shadows, Pulp and Pearl Jam; made in Sheffield, but increasingly beyond time and place.
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