Sometimes I wonder how Alex Turner can make being young sound so boring - maybe that's the point
The Arctic Monkeys' fifth album, AM, has changed the sound but not the character of Britain's "Last True Indie Band".
New American vibe: Arctic Monkeys in Fort Lauderdale. Photograph: Dean Chalkley.
Arctic Monkeys: AM
There’s something quite tiring about listening to singers of great wit. I’ve found I can best enjoy Loudon Wainwright, and his son, for that matter, by sandwiching one of their tracks between two power ballads in order to offset the bons mots with lyrics that don’t mean much at all. It’s the same with Arctic Monkeys, because more than anyone else on the planet Alex Turner has the kind of voice that leaps into the spotlight with top hat and cane and tap-dances on your brain for 45 minutes. It’s up to you to take your own rest breaks.
He is, granted, one of the great lyricists of the 21st century. A brief recap for those who have not followed the fortunes of Britain’s Last True Indie Band (and the first group to get famous on the internet): Turner appeared in 2005 with a song called “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”, an urchin haircut and a verbal dexterity that seemed to reach beyond his 19 years.
He provided Hogarthian scenes of life in Sheffield back alleys (“Likes her gentlemen not to be gentle/Was it a Mecca dauber or a betting pencil?”), full of lovingly extended metaphors, mordant Morrissey-style observations, inverted proverbs, boom-tish song titles (“Don’t Sit Down ’Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair”) and puns chewed over with all the pride of a particularly funny uncle. Someone once compared him to George Formby and as an entertainer he was certainly more Wigan Casino than Factory Records.
After a precocious side project called the Last Shadow Puppets, in which he and the Rascals’ Miles Kane, then both 22, wrote a suite of songs infused with Scott Walker and Ennio Morricone, Turner moved his band to the US, where they began a surprise working relationship with Josh Homme, the icon of desert rock. Homme produced Arctic Monkeys’ third album, Humbug, and took on the loftier role of “musical adviser” for their fourth, Suck It and See. For their forthcoming fifth, AM, he is a more gaseous presence still, offering just a handful of backing vocals but very much there in spirit.
Apart from causing a brief uproar on Twitter during their performance at this year’s Glastonbury, when Turner was accused of “sounding too American”, the transatlantic move has been well received. It has helped to free the Monkeys from the energetic but rather millennial indie thrash of their early stuff and moved them into the broader world of rock. AM is named, Turner has said, in the manner of the Velvet Underground’s outtakes album, VU. The new sound is as heavy and sexy as it is clean: nipped drums, achingly funky bass lines and falsetto choruses (Homme’s thing) that recall Outkast and the best end of Justin Timberlake.
This “R’n’B rock” thing suits them perfectly well. Turner’s rhyme machine was always fluid like a rapper’s (“That Bloody Mary’s lacking in Tabasco/Remember when you used to be a rascal”) – and he does do a rap, of sorts, on “One for the Road”. Long, stretchy guitar lines shadow his smart, unfolding phrases, and there are songs on here – such as “R U Mine?”, with its big, twisty anaconda riff – that make me want to turn the iPod up enough to damage my ears.
But any thrills to be had lie in the instrumentation and slick, brawny production. Turner’s lyrics work best when tossed casually over the shoulder, and in their cavernous new setting they command more attention than they deserve. On 2011’s Suck It and See he was already sounding a bit flat and selfsatisfied (“That’s not a skirt girl, that’s a sawnoff shotgun/And I can only hope you’ve got it aimed at me”). Well, eight years after his debut and four years in to his American life, Turner is apparently still trying to get off with someone at a house party and waiting for her to shut up so he can kiss her.
His birds were always part of the wider Sixties aesthetic – Edie Sedgwicks or Felicity Shagwells, all ankles and fringes – but these days they are increasingly two-dimensional. In “Fluorescent Adolescent”, or the memorably titled “Mardy Bum”, he somehow managed to tell a girl’s side of the story even in the act of mocking her. By contrast, AM’s tales of one-way priapic pursuit are just boring (“she’s a certified mind-blower/may suggest there’s somewhere from which I might know her”) while the girl in “Arabella” is extraordinarily dull –not much of a creation at all in her “Barbarella swimsuit”, though she enters on such triumphant riffage you’d think she was Polythene Pam.
Sometimes I wonder how it is that Turner can make being young sound so boring but maybe that’s the point –he has always wanted to be old. “I Wanna Be Yours” is his musical version of John Cooper Clarke’s poem (“I wanna be your vacuum cleaner . . . Ford Cortina . . . leccy meter”, etc) but the words could be Turner’s own. There’s a song called “No 1 Party Anthem”, which, despite its title, is a luxuriant and comfortable cruise through familiar melodic territory for Turner – the music of Richard Hawley or Tony Christie, with a bit of “Let It Be”-era Lennon in his voice. The setting suits him down to the ground. The images of clubland in the lyrics, “sweat on the walls . . . cages and poles”, couldn’t sound less appealing.
“AM” is released on 9 September