#20: The Carters – Everything Is Love
The Difficult Second Album has always been a problem in rock ‘n’ roll. After an album that sets the world on fire, relatively speaking, the follow-up is constrained by time, hype, and record label needs. It’s also constrained by artistic pig-headedness – the curse of “Oh they think we’re just about this sound, well WE’LL SHOW THEM!”
They inevitably don’t light the same fire that the first album did, and both the critics and paying public feel lukewarm and move on, leaving only a small coterie of hardcore fans who stick around, convinced that the band can do no wrong. This was the Strokes on Room On Fire, The Hives on Tyrannosaurus Hives, Weezer on Pinkerton, Massive Attack on Protection, Alanis Morisette on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Live on Secret Samahdi. This was, ostensibly, Arctic Monkeys on Favourite Worst Nightmare.
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the Sheffield band’s first album, was world-shaking, especially in their native England. When the Strokes first came to the UK it was as though an atom bomb had gone off; within four years bands influenced by the Strokes were clogging up MySpace, hawking their wares and building their fanbase one grimy all-ages show in a small town after another. Arctic Monkeys were one of those bands, but multiplied by a hundred. At the height of MySpace as a social media platform, they were one of the two bands that leveraged their fanbase into massive real-world success (the other of course being Fall Out Boy). Unlike their American counterparts, Arctic Monkeys could actually write good songs; Whatever People Say was chock-full of poetic renditions of liquored-up good times, a paean to English drinking culture, small-time rock scenes, and getting up to shifty business in very dodgy places.
How to follow up such a successful first album, though? It’s a tightrope walk, as the Strokes themselves knew all too well, and it’s always going to be fraught with heavier criticisms than might otherwise be warranted. So it went with Favourite Worst Nightmare. Critics were unconvinced by the songs, claiming the snarky swipes at the scene that had given birth to them were dreadful. While there is some merit to this particular criticism (especially in dead-ringer slogs like “If You Were There, Beware” and “The Bad Thing”) it obscures the great songs that are embedded in the album. “Brianstorm” is a barnburner of an opener and a delightful piss-take on the younger set of would-be managers and show promoters. “Teddy Picker”, “D Is For Dangerous”, and “Balaclava” hearken back to the band’s debut – leave the progress for the next three albums, this was all about doubling down on what worked. “Fluorescent Adolescent” is a stone classic of a song, the sort of song that transcends whatever album it’s on to be a classic of a band’s canon; it’s first line (“You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your nightdress”) sums up an entire feeling of the kind of heavy nostalgia that can get you into serious trouble later in life in such a way that is honestly rare in youth-oriented rock ‘n’ roll. Favourite Worst Nightmare is blessed with two of these sorts of classic tracks, the other being “505”. “505” was, in 2007, the odd one out in the band’s catalog, a smooth number that builds up to a crescendo, rather than the riff-oriented bangers that the band was otherwise known for. Humbug, their follow-up, would show a band that wanted to focus on this aspect of their songwriting, and it was all the better for it.
(The entire Glastonbury 2007 Arctic Monkeys performance!)
It’s somewhat funny to look back on Favourite Worst Nightmare and remember the disappointment some felt, and the defensiveness that others felt they needed to exude to combat this. As far as contemporary bands, Arctic Monkeys have surely aged the best; AM, released in 2013, was easily one of the best albums of the year, a feat that bands like Fall Out Boy could only dream of (especially given that every album subsequent to From Under The Cork Tree was complete garbage). Even the Strokes couldn’t manage that; everything after Is This It? was a mixed bag. Not bad for four kids from Northern England.