Imagine you’re 19 or 20, and your first album breaks sales records, wins multiple awards, and shows up on virtually every critics poll. What do you do next? If you’re Sheffield, England’s Arctic Monkeys, you work and work and work, a tactic that soon resulted in the quiet departure of apparently exhausted bassist Andy Nicholson.
Released just more than a year after Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Favourite Worst Nightmare captures a maturing band caught in a relentless hurricane of archetypal British hype. Wound up from constant gigging while integrating replacement bassist Nick O’Malley, the quartet eschews Brit-pop finesse, playing heavier and tighter, with rough punk precision. Though the album retains the keenly articulated observations and tricky rhymes that link songwriter Alex Turner to A-grade rappers, there are fewer hooks to support them. Favourite also lacks the debut’s sharp focus on northern English nightlife, which made the earlier songs instantly familiar to Brits and voyeuristically thrilling for Yanks. Opening track “Brianstorm,” a detailed study of a slippery businessman and his Jacuzzi-bound babe, epitomizes the album’s shortcomings: Swapping a snappy tune for brawn, the band never lets these presumably real characters develop beyond clichés.
On “Fluorescent Adolescent,” which follows a discontented female protagonist yearning for bygone nights of electric boy-slags, Turner generates a far more engaging sing-along to match his riveting lyrics: “Discarded all the naughty nights for niceness / Landed in a very common crisis.” On “Only Ones Who Know,” he croons in hushed, drum-free admiration of a couple romancing on foreign soil. A similar fantasy is dashed over the dance-rock thump of “Old Yellow Bricks,” in which a restless dreamer yearns to escape “a city that never wakes up” and then realizes that “Dorothy was right” — there’s indeed no place like home.
But a gap has widened between Turner’s poetic intricacies and the band’s visceral bluntness. The harder the music hammers, the flatter the lyrics get. The more the band holds back, the stronger the songs become. Consequently, there’s half of a great album here. Turner withholds his best for last, on “505,” which recalls Whatever‘s finest track, the darkly cinematic “When the Sun Goes Down.” Singing with a strength and clarity obscured elsewhere by abrasive guitars and abstract wordplay, he’s lost in reverie for an elusive muse: “In my imagination you’re waiting / Lying on your side / With your hands between your thighs.” It’s a simple scene, but finely wrought like a Botticelli nude, with the object of desire seeming to whisper that fame has led Turner far from the things he loves.