Arctic Monkeys review – making musical quantum leaps from upstarts to intelligent rockers

When Arctic Monkeys' Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not became the fastest selling debut album in chart history in 2006, the Sheffield group looked set to dominate the UK music scene for years.

Their achievement has been to do so while simultaneously reinventing themselves into a different band entirely.

Eight years, four number one albums, seven Brit awards and two Glastonbury headline slots down the line, the Monkeys bear scant resemblance to the brittle, droll post-Libertines indie rockers they initially were. This is understandable: it would be duplicitous to go on writing about late-night taxi ranks and kebab vans when they are residing in Brooklyn, squiring supermodels and sprinkling stardust on Olympics opening ceremonies.

Possibly wary of being pigeonholed as creators of quirky provincial pop, the band also recalibrated their sound after their spectacular arrival, hiring Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme as producer and embracing relatively dark-hued, muscular stoner rock.

Their latest album, last year's AM, was their most successful exercise to date in marrying this heavy-duty riffing to singer Alex Turner's brilliantly knowing, exquisitely sardonic lyrical observations.

These stylistic shifts have not prevented the Monkeys from holding on to a ferociously loyal following that means they are able to open this summer's festival season with two sold-out 40,000-capacity shows in Finsbury Park. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the first night crowd appeared to be the kind of lager-throwing, knuckle-dragging troglodytes last seen en masse devoting themselves to religiously pursuing Oasis around the country.

Turner remains a strange recipient of such lumpen adoration. A tangential, distracted figure, he seems oddly aloof from a following that he appears notably more intelligent than, which was not an accusation that you could ever throw at Liam Gallagher. In a garish, tailored jacket, and sporadically pausing to produce a comb to rearrange his wayward quiff, he suggests some bizarre self-effacing 21st take on Buddy Holly.

Turner has talked, correctly, of AM being the Monkeys' best album to date, and it seemed a vote of confidence that they opened their set with three songs taken from it. The standout was the louche, pulsing Arabella, a paean to hopeless infatuation that features the characteristically poetic image of his would-be paramour boasting "a helter-skelter around her little finger, and I ride it endlessly."

An unlikely frontman, Turner appears perpetually uncomfortable in his own skin, but this innate awkwardness fits his band's sense of constantly chafing against expectations and restrictions.

Widely seen as arrogant, he is actually infinitely more likely to denigrate and subvert his lofty position than gratuitously celebrate it: the chugging, accusatory Why Do You Only Call Me When You're High? finds him reflecting ruefully on his unfortunate habit of making unsuccessful 3am booty calls.

The band's 2006 debut single and No 1 I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor reduces the field to one giant gyrating student disco, but given the musical quantum leaps the Monkeys have made since then, suggests a middle-aged friend showing you a particularly dated photo of their gauche college days.

Far better is No 1 Party Anthem, a sarky ballad that could be John Lennon in its ability to marry the sincere and sarcastic and turn them into a mass sing-along.

Knee Socks features keening falsetto backing from the rest of the band and sees Turner drawling a line worthy of Alan Bennett about "kissing to cut through the gloom with a cough-drop-coloured tongue".

He reemerges alone for the encore to revisit the serrated, staccato early track A Certain Romance, then quotes his spiritual forebear John Cooper Clarke all through the acerbic I Wanna Be Yours. It has been a peculiarly satisfying performance from Britain's most itchy, perennially dissatisfied band.

Powered by article was written by Ian Gittins, for The Guardian on Saturday 24th May 2014 01.15 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010