Arctic Monkeys begin their Glastonbury Friday night headline set in darkness, an ominous pulse ringing across the rammed fields like an elevator ticking off levels in a Kubrick film. Alex Turner walks on in a severely unbuttoned white shirt and open suit jacket, his hair manicured like vintage Roy Orbison. The choice of opener – the gorgeously chilly, Portishead-esque “Sculptures of Anything Goes” – could not signal their transformation more clearly, nor their faith in the experimental bent of their latest two albums. Here is a song they could never have written last time they headlined Glastonbury, in 2013 – a bold choice that doubles as justification for their return, just two divisive albums later.
They move swiftly into the hyperspeed “Brianstorm” and a string of crowdpleasers such as “Don’t Sit Down ’Cos I’ve Moved Your Chair”, from 2011’s Suck it and See, and “Snap Out of It”, from 2013’s stratospherically popular AM, that show the depth of their catalogue. Turner is in strong voice, with no sign of the laryngitis that forced them to cancel a midweek show in Dublin and threatened, until the last minute, to derail tonight’s set.
Turner has developed a habit for singing half a step behind the beat, spawning amused memes and captioned concert footage across social media as fans try in vain to sing along. This oblique form of showmanship is in part a practical matter. On a riotous “Crying Lightning”, he rattles through verses stuffed with so many words that the usual vocal flourishes and ad-libs are impossible. Behind him, drummer Matt Helders holds the show together, slowing things to a lascivious crawl for the “Crying Lightning” solo, before thrillingly ratcheting up the pace for the middle eight.
Turner swaggers through “Cornerstone” – complete with a newly countrified riff – comically behind the beat, as if mining unexplored nooks in his own song. To cue Jamie Cook’s guitar solo, he yee-haws. (“I just added that for you, tonight,” Turner deadpans to the crowd afterwards.) “The Monkeys are back on the farm,” he adds in a funny voice, like a crooner touring a seaside town. All this toying with persona appears to extend his distrust of the rock construct – the everything-scepticism that gave his earliest classics their masterful, people-watching poetry, and later informed the anti-industry slant of songs like “Teddy Picker.” These days, he is not only performing as a rock star but performing that performance. As much as a way to entertain himself, these vaguely ironic games play as a spin on the roles that people, particularly celebrities, take on as they grapple with the vexed question of what it means to be authentic.
If the first half of the set showed the Monkeys’ breadth, AM hit “Do I Wanna Know?” unifies band and crowd, and “Mardy Bum” seals the pact, triggering an arms-around-shoulders singalong. He winkingly introduces “There’d Better Be a Mirrorball”, the single about painful goodbyes from last year’s album The Car, by saying: “Alright, let’s leave the past behind.” He turns to face the band and mimes whipping a conductor’s stick upon each introductory piano pang. The song is a landmark in Turner’s latest songwriting phase, where his love songs increasingly double as comments on songwriting and stardom itself: “Don’t get emotional,” he sings in his newfound croon. “That’s not like you.”
The initial set closes with “Body Paint”, such a strange and baffling addition to their catalogue of indisputable anthems that it would justify all the bizarre left turns it took to get there, even if those turns were not gems in their own right. It would be a worthy set closer. Turner and Jamie Cook peal into warring guitar solos in a finale that could pass for Sunday-night headliner Elton John. But the band are not done. They open an encore with the unlikely TikTok hit “I Wanna Be Yours”, repurposed from a John Cooper Clarke poem and appended, in a fancy twist, with a monologued reading of “Star Treatment” – a freeform riff on writer’s block that is the most playfully brilliant verse Turner has written.
Crowd members agitating for “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” get their wish, and Turner, who now looks feral, seems determined to deliver an all-time performance. Closer “R U Mine” delivers – a showcase for the rhythm section that has always made Arctic Monkeys one of the most effective live rock bands on the planet. The crowd – exhausted, electric, alive – finally get some fan service, too: Turner sings every word perfectly on the beat.
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