Arctic Monkeys: Wembley Arena, London ***

Northern soul with a heavy heart

“FANCY MEETING you in here,” Alex Turner sings, in the first moment of quiet. “You’re all tarted up, you don’t look the same.” He could be talking intimately in the Sheffield dancehall setting of this old song, ‘Still Take You Home’. But some girls in the arena crowd he’s in fact here to meet scream at the sight of him. Scattered moshpits of men throwing careless fists show the Arctic Monkeys have also inherited some of Oasis’s more testosterone-addled constituency. ‘This House Is A Circus’, goes another song, and I half-think: does he mean us?

Nor are audiences all that has changed since the band first surfaced as terrified, precocious teenagers in 2005. Their new album Humbug is a transitional work, using producer Josh Homme to help them into uncomfortable musical territory, a typically intelligent move which will benefit them later. Tonight, though, ‘Potion Approaching’s’ rhythmically complicated, broken-backed variant on grunge’s quiet-loud formula and the long, incremental riff of ‘The Jeweller’s Hands’ best show how introverted and forbidding much of Humbug sounds.

The band reliably duck careerist, crowning moments, playing spindly sets at Glastonbury 2007 and this year’s Reading. But volume and momentum appropriate to their arena status is almost relentless now. Banks of red lights strobe the crowd’s seething movement into slow motion during ‘Brainstorm’, and a confetti-cannon fires near the end. If hardly the “fire and tigers” drummer Matt Helders jokingly considered beforehand, for the Arctics this is cutting-edge stagecraft. Turner still cries “Hello Wembley!” with amusement at the idea, but mixed with interest now.

Once sprightly songs from debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not have their sound thickened for Humbug‘s new head-banging world. “I wish that you’d stop ignoring me” goes a line in ‘I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor’, another in a series of ironies in this venue they easily transcend. But the tumbling riff which triggers that peerless first hit single is now swamped in the general thunder. These “soup can” songs, as Turner aptly describes early tales of ordinary life he can no longer write, have a little of their heart smothered too.

The band still smuggle great skill and variety into their new racket. Lead guitarist Jamie Cook’s choppy psychedelic fills on ‘This House Is A Circus’ and high whining work on ‘The Jeweller’s Hands’ (the only thing that keeps it moving at all) are subtly arresting. An insistence on playing B-sides only hardcore fans will know offers the Mark E. Smith tribute ‘Sketchead’. And it’s A-side, ‘Cornerstone’, channels another oddball Northern lyricist, Jake Thackray, with its absurdly named series of pubs and eccentric, affectionate humour. Produced on record not by Homme but earlier favourite James Ford, it also permits the sort of gorgeous, nagging tune otherwise abandoned in Humbug‘s explorations.

It is near the end that this interesting but sometimes uninvolving show finds its purpose. Early hit ‘When the Sun Goes Down’ gets such a huge roar for the moment of silence just after it starts that Turner is caught out for a moment by the tens of thousands this arena has gathered. His eyebrows nervously arch, but instinct lets the fans fill the vacuum. When the music drops back in, the floor shakes. Communal excitement has slipped into the music’s softest seconds.

‘When the Sun Goes Down’ was inspired by Turner’s disgust watching prostitutes’ pimps and punters outside the Sheffield studio where it was recorded. He follows it with ‘Secret Door’, where the “fools on parade” are paparazzi swarming round his famous TV presenter girlfriend Alexa Chung. The same sensitivity in a different world: such connections show the Arctics should still be alright.

© Nick HastedThe Independent, 19 November 2009

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