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

Gallery Stock
Show Hide image

Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496