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".

Arctic Monkeys: AM
Domino Records
 
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 
New American vibe: Arctic Monkeys in Fort Lauderdale. Photograph: Dean Chalkley.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496