Arctic Monkeys’ career can be divided into the periods before and after AM, the smirking after-hours stomp that launched the group to previously unseen international success in 2013. Their boisterous riffs and louche anthems won over a new generation of fans—but in the aftermath, Alex Turner found himself struggling with writer’s block, only overcoming that hurdle by sequestering himself away with a piano. While the loungey follow-up Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was divisive among fans upon its release, Arctic Monkeys’ new live album shows there’s an enduring throughline between the albums, anchored by Turner’s potent songwriting.
Live at the Royal Albert Hall captures a War Child charity gig that took place near the beginning of the Tranquility Base era, just a month after its release in 2018. (Proceeds from the album will also benefit War Child.) Though it leans most heavily on the aforementioned last two albums, the setlist scans like a collection of greatest hits. Across 90 minutes and 20 tracks, the Monkeys review their nearly two-decade career, refreshing old favorites and working out new material.
Arctic Monkeys were a compelling enough touring act prior to AM, but it was during their 2013-2014 run behind that album that the band truly came into their full powers. Hits from that period, like “Do I Wanna Know?” and “R U Mine?,” feel totally effortless here, irrespective of the occasional transposed key or vocal stumble to remind us that Turner is no longer the bright-eyed 19-year-old who recorded Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. He has a more worldly weariness to his vocal timbre now, which makes the older material feel satisfyingly lived-in.
Even though Tranquility Base was largely a studio project, built upon demos written by Turner while holed up in his Los Angeles home, the songs benefit from the limitations of the live environment. The acoustic guitar and synth overdubs in the slightly claustrophobic studio version of “Four Out of Five” blend into the background in favor of a far looser sequence, led by snarls of fuzz from guitarist Jamie Cook. And for Arctic Monkeys diehards who found their last studio album to be too severe a departure, Live at the Royal Albert Hall might help bring its strengths into focus. Turner’s breathy delivery on the studio version of “One Point Perspective” might scan as a put-on because his vocals are so isolated from the rest of the band, as he slurs into the slap-back. But his voice is commanding on the live version, sounding like a jaded Elton John.
At the time of the performance, Tranquility Base was recent enough that the concert actually marked the debut performance of album opener “Star Treatment,” Turner’s paean to the Strokes and Blade Runner. You wouldn’t know it was a new song from the cheers let loose after the opening chord. The fans might go crazy for Matt Helders’ blistering “Brianstorm” intro and the loping bassline of “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”, but they’re also right there singing along to newer tracks like “She Looks Like Fun.” Crowd noise can make or break a live album, and with 5,000-some-odd fans acting as de facto backing vocalists, Royal Albert Hall is a great example of the former. (As with any audio-only live document, the cheers can allude to untold stories; in the second verse of “Arabella,” the audience explodes after Turner neatly catches an avid fan’s castoff pair of tights.)
Compare Live at the Royal Albert Hall to Arctic Monkeys’ last official live release, 2008’s At the Apollo, and it’s apparent how significantly the band have grown in that time. After starting the decade in pursuit of a “more poppy” sound, they ended it by taking a chance on Turner’s conceptual songs about taco stands on the moon. From here, they’re free to pursue any direction they wish.