Arctic Monkeys, Reading Festival 2022, review: An electric return from the world’s most reliable headliners
The Sheffield band made a brilliant comeback to the UK stage after four years away, treating fans to music from their upcoming album “The Car” as well as old favourites
As soon as Arctic Monkeys stepped onto Reading’s Main Stage East last night, tearing into the muscular groove of their calling card 2013 single “Do I Wanna Know”, we were in safe hands.
The moment marked the Sheffield band’s return to the UK stage after an almost exactly four-year absence, and over 90 minutes, Reading’s lairy, up-for-it crowd got an electric reminder of what it had been missing from a band who are absolute experts at headlining festivals.
Arctic Monkeys, after all, have been playing these gigs since they were 21-year-olds in Adidas tracksuit bottoms and windbreakers, gazing wide-eyed out onto the masses from Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage.
They were such a cultural phenomenon in the mid-2000s that they were booked to play music’s biggest slot just after the release of their second album Favourite Worst Nightmare. That was an anointment of sorts, and now in their mid-30s, having swapped the trainers and nerves of 2007 for tailored suits and Alex Turner’s languid hip-shaking, they have become one of the world’s most quintessential festival bands, their unique offering of nostalgia and genuinely exhilarating rock chops always a welcome prospect on a line-up.
Last night’s Reading set was heavy on the hits – beloved tracks from their back catalogue, from a crowd-pleasing “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (“Ah go on then,” Alex Turner smirked as he played the song’s first chord, while next to me a pint went promptly into the air, as is legally required when that track rears its head) to encore closer “R U Mine?” were present.
The band have evolved since their 2018 album Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, and previewed one new song from their upcoming album The Car (newly announced and due for release in October), titled “I’m Not Quite Where I Think I Am”.
The track, which felt like a funkier and more accessible update on TBHC’s lounge-y formula, went down well enough, but it was, of course, during the more established singalongs that the night felt really special.
Do Me a Favour” was a particular highlight, giving Matt Helders, looking snappy in a leopard print shirt, ample room to remind us that he remains one of rock’s great drummers, while live mainstay “Cornerstone” – a strange, sad song about loss and longing; effectively a Lynch film replete with pub carpet and soggy beer mats – was far and away Turner’s best moment.
The track is lush, pealing and romantic, but uninhibitedly strange (and musically clearly indebted to another Sheffield legend, Richard Hawley) – a ballad done the Alex Turner way. To perform it, he traditionally loses the guitar, going full club crooner; here his voice sounded especially rich against Jamie Cook’s instrumentation.
Indeed, onstage, Turner is totally self-possessed as a performer, no longer the deer-in-the-headlights of the band’s earlier days, or as schtick-y as he was around the time of their AM album – the Brylcreem hairdo, for example, is long gone – but more a bit of an underrated eccentric (the band, often categorised in the “indie nostalgia” file in our minds, are actually quite a lot odder than most remember, Turner’s lyrics sometimes impossibly verbose, and full of sly sexuality).
Last night Turner put me in mind of another Pulp member, Jarvis Cocker, as he held court wirily in a suit jacket and 70s-rockstar-at-leisure-esque linen shirt (plus, a pair of sunglasses for Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’s title track, to truly embody its barstool-dwelling narrator), totally at ease, a born frontman who has settled into the role in front of our very eyes over the years.
In fact, there is an argument that perhaps they have got so good at this whole headlining thing that the contours of their set have become a little predictable (heavy on AM’s low-riding riffs, a smattering of everything else). There weren’t many surprises, though “Potion Approaching” from 2009’s Humbug and the jangly “That’s Where You’re Wrong” from the band’s fourth record Suck It and See are recent (and slightly obscure) additions to their current show.
The standout unexpected moment, however, was the inclusion of “From the Ritz to the Rubble”, from the band’s 2005 debut album Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not, which mobilised people up onto their mates’ shoulders, and sent flares smoking up into the sky, in keeping with the track’s pointy-elbowed riff.
Perhaps it was business as usual, but there’s no real room for complaining when the business at hand is as consummate and thrilling as Arctic Monkeys. They ended the main set, as they often do, on the elegiac “505”, and as its warm organ evolved into the song’s breakdown – “I crumble completely when you cry” – I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a singalong so loud, or a crowd so obviously thrilled.