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

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge