It is fall 2005. I am a vaguely angsty teen who comes home from school and reads British music sites in order to, like, dull the suburban ennui (or whatever). I find a demo of a song called “Fake Tales Of San Francisco” by Arctic Monkeys. The real San Francisco is an hour away from me, half a world away from the four slightly older teens from northern England. The track instantly grabs me—its taut, roughed-up riffs landing somewhere between my ongoing obsessions with The Libertines and Franz Ferdinand. I can’t relate to singer/guitarist Alex Turner’s stories of love and hate that take place in bars and clubs, but the wide-eyed boys in well-worn polo shirts and sneakers still feel distinctly accessible. The next year, Arctic Monkeys release Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, breaking the British record for fastest selling debut album. They have a permanent spot in my Top 8 on Myspace and I buy imported copies of their CD singles from Tower Records.
It is fall 2013. I am a music blogger in my mid 20s in New York City. Myspace is a thing that Justin Timberlake tried to get people to like again. Tower Records has been out of business for years. Arctic Monkeys have just released their fifth album, AM, and I am finally seeing them live for the first time at a packed-out Webster Hall. It’s a clear triumph; the line goes down the block hours before the doors open and there are enough people who were in the Kidz Bop demographic when Whatever People Say I Am came out, to prove that the band’s been continually earning fans. While we’re waiting, a teen boy tells my friend and I to look up YouTube footage of a festival that Arctic Monkeys played in 2006, and neither of us can remember if we even used YouTube back then.
Once inside, the sense of anticipation is palpable. A set from NYC’s Drowners is well received, the lo-fi quartet managing to make garage pop head-boppers like “Shell” and “Long Hair” fill the sizeable club. Frontman Matt Hitt can’t stop reminding the crowd of what his band is called, but that’s okay–they’ve only got one EP out so far and everyone knows what the main event is, anyways. Then Turner comes out wearing a brown sequined blazer that makes him look like some sort of bizarre 70s lounge singer, while bassist Nick O’Malley and guitarist Jamie Cook are both shaggy-haired in suits. Drummer Matt Helders might still have something with the Adidas logo on it in the back of a closet somewhere, but we’re not in Kansas or 2006 anymore. The band that can’t stop making hits kicks off their set with the smoldering AM opener “Do I Wanna Know?” and the crowd immediately turns into a who-needs-both-kidneys-anyways crush. It’s hard to tell if there are so many hands in the air because of sheer enthusiasm or because it’s impossible to let gravity do its job.
If there was a tepid point in the Arctic Monkeys discography, it was 2011’s hit-and-miss fourth LP Suck It And See, though “Brick By Brick” is a highlight of the show. AM sees them bouncing back into fine form, though Turner’s transformation into a lothario rock god isn’t quite hitting the mark, thanks to a penchant for floppy shirt collars and heavy leather jackets that weigh down his slight frame. When he pulls out a comb and slicks back his heavily pomaded hair onstage, it’s frankly a bit comical. But growing up is hard for everyone, and where his look falls short, songs like “Knee Socks” convincingly rise out of a sleazy ooze. “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” is driven by a nasty funk lurch, while “Snap Out Of It” shows a heavy take on retro jangle.
Arctic Monkeys are in it for the long haul, and they play like it. Over the span of about two hours, they runs through their entire career, “Brianstorm” and “Fluorescent Adolescent” from 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare remaining obvious favorites. Whatever People Say I Am’s lead single “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” still sounds fresh, though it’s miles away from the the tightly-wound vibe that defines AM. As the night closes with the nostalgia-tinged “505,” I remember that not everyone is looking so far back. It’s pretty difficult when you have three different elbows pressing into your neck.