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

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Fasting and Feasting: the eccentric life of food writer Patience Gray

Journalist Adam Federman clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. 

It is hard, these days, to open a food magazine or a news­paper’s colour supplement without finding an article extolling the charm of foraging. So fashionable has the Instagram-friendly pursuit become that the botanist James Wong recently  wrote of his alarm at finding pictures of food – often published on blogs proclaiming the evils of sugar, gluten and dairy – prettily decorated with flowers of extreme toxicity: narcissus, catharanthus, lantana and rhododendron.

The food writer Patience Gray loved narcissi, whose springtime appearance on Naxos she described in her 1989 account of a year spent on the Greek island, Ring Doves and Snakes; but she would have known better than to use them as a garnish. Her passionate interest in foraged and seasonal food, which began during her wartime years spent in a primitive cottage in Sussex, where she pursued a scholarly interest in edible fungi, developed over the many decades during which she lived with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, in some of the remotest parts of the Mediterranean.

On Naxos, in Carrara in Tuscany and for the last three decades of their life together at Spigolizzi, a masseria (farmhouse) in Apulia, Gray and Mommens found a way of life still governed by the elemental rhythms of sowing and growing, feasting and fasting – rhythms they adopted and incorporated into the practice of their work. “Métier” was a talismanic term for Gray.

“It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values,” she wrote in Honey from a Weed (1986), her evocative fusion of memoir and cookbook. “As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished.”

Patience was one of a formidable cohort of female writer-cooks whose celebrations of food in muscular, elegant prose sprang from the privations of the Second World War. A contemporary of Elizabeth David, M F K Fisher and Julia Child, she wrote just three cookery books, only two of which were published in her lifetime: the bestselling Plats du Jour (1957), co-written with Primrose Boyd and warily subtitled “Foreign Food”, and the eclectic Honey from a Weed. The Centaur’s Kitchen, a book of Mediterranean recipes written in 1964 for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel shipping line, was posthumously published in 2005. She also wrote two wayward volumes of memoir: Ring Doves and Snakes and Work Adventures Childhood Dreams (1999).

Despite this comparative reticence (she wrote bitterly in Work Adventures Childhood Dreams of her mother, whom she accused of valuing only published work: “But Patience, is there anything you have written that is actually in print?”), the publication of Honey from a Weed turned her into a celebrity, and the austere household at Spigolizzi, devoid of electricity, telephone or sanitation, became a place of pilgrimage for such keen food fanciers as Paul Levy (the co-author of The Official Foodie Handbook) and the late Derek Cooper of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. As her biographer, Adam Federman, remarks, “A full account of her remarkable life is long overdue.”

Gray divided her adult life into two parts: before 1962, when she began living with Norman Mommens, and after. On either side of that meeting her life was eventful. Of her upper-middle-class upbringing she wrote, “I have listened to other people’s accounts of their happy childhoods with sadness mingled with disbelief.”

Educated at Queen’s College in London (where Unity Mitford was a contemporary) and the London School of Economics, she worked for the designer F H K Henrion on the agricultural and country pavilions at the Festival of Britain, and had three children by Thomas Gray, an elusive  married “artist-designer” whose name she took.

Having left him, she won a competition to become the women’s editor of the Observer. Sacked after three years (by the paper’s new features editor George Seddon, under whom things “became dull, more serious”), she “began a different and more creative life”, sharing and recording the ancient traditions of seasonal food production and preparation of the communities among which she occupied an ambiguous position as both participant and observer until her death in 2005, aged 87.

Federman – a journalist, academic and “former line cook, bread baker and pastry chef” – clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. While Gray possessed the sharp observing eye, selective memory and comic timing of an instinctive writer, Federman is dogged and respectful.

His book is dutifully strewn with the names of Gray’s wide acquaintance, but he lacks the gift of characterisation and conveys little impression of their personalities. Even Gray, so vivid a presence in her own books, seems oddly muted in Federman’s portrait (though he gives a lively account of her exhilaratingly awful behaviour at her daughter’s wedding).

For admirers of Patience Gray’s remarkable prescience in anticipating what has become known as the “Slow Food” movement, Federman’s exhaustively detailed biography will be a valuable resource. But for those who long for a flavour of her personality – as pungent and earthy as the dishes she recorded – it is best read with a copy of Honey from a Weed to hand. 

Fasting and Feasting: the Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
Adam Federman
Chelsea Green, 384pp, £20

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder