The second of four nights at the O2 showed just why the Arctic Monkeys are special. Why they have outrun their peers. Why they continue to challenge preconceptions.
Normally arena gigs need some form of audience interaction; “Let me see your hands”, “Singalong to this one – you all know the words”, “Let me hear you sing”. Distances are extended. People are removed from the action.
Alex Turner and his colleagues were confident enough to reject this. Comfortable in their own skins, beyond a Yorkshire greeting of “Are tha enjoying tha sen?”, they let the music do the talking. It’s a Monday night, the most school of school nights. Many of the crowd are geographically apart from the band, rising into the fifty-metre high roof of the O2 Arena. And yet their command was total.
Six albums into their career, there’s been barely a missed step. They’ve not oversold themselves, ploughing their own furrow, always open to interesting influences and collaborators, whether it be muscling up with Joshua Homme on Humbug or getting funky on AM. This year’s Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino extends this even further. It absolutely ignores the formulaic crowd pleasers and has a sense of unity.
I’ve seen the touchstones of Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley banded around, their Sheffield elders who have been known to play up the louche lounge lizard vibe.
I can see that. I get the accent. I can hear the sense of detail in the lyrics. I understand how a northern working-class club cabaret vibe can be translated into the 21st century.
But this is doing them a disservice. Without denigrating their Yorkshire peers, the quality of left turns, lyrical observation and musical invention is Bowie-esque. Here’s another British innovator for them to stand proudly next to – Paul Weller. Not the guitar-driven anger of Strange Town or Going Underground but the latter period Sound Effects era Jam into the Style Council. Trying in new styles for size whether it be jazz, soul or funk, Weller shed musical skins whilst retaining his identity.
The last two albums showed that the Arctic Monkeys could manage this musical development in a studio environment. The first night at the O2 showed that this shape-shifting works in a live arena too.
There was much to admire but as pertinently, more to love. The big hitters all delivered. Do I Wanna Know, Brianstorm, I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor all set the multiple vortices of moshpits spiralling around the floor of the arena. There were more off-kilter delights though. Don’t Sit Down Cause I’ve Moved You Chair featured a persistent single chord Stooges piano riff. 505 was stunning, moving from the two-chord keyboard introduction into a Matt Helder fuelled motorik monster. Kneesocks featured a falsetto section, the Monkeys pulling off harmonies that the brothers Gibb wouldn’t have sniffed at. Humbug’s frenetic and previously unloved Pretty Visitors was angular and awkward, all elbows but laserlike in its chaotic accuracy.
And this is where we get back to Bowie. The keyboard-driven new material worked superbly live, providing light and shade against the earlier material. The new album’s title track expanded the introduction into a Man Who Sold The World doom-fest before Turner took over on his front and centre electric piano. Lyrically dense but always astute, I’ve been listening to a great deal of Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino recently. Turner’s dexterity is up there with them. Bowie was a Kendrick fan, an admire of To Pimp A Butterfly as he completed Blackstar.
And then it hit me.
If Young Americans was Bowie’s Plastic Soul period, then we are in the realms of the Monkeys’ Plastic Northern Soul era. They really are close to those dizzy heights.
Where they go from here is anyone’s guess but I’ll be travelling with them.