His latest bar stool poet-persona is just the latest in a long line of masks the Monkeys man has worn
“I’m sittin’ goin’ backwards / And I didn’t want to leave,” Alex Turner sang on Arctic Monkeys‘ 2006 post-club indie banger ‘Red Lights Indicate Doors Are Secured’, taken from their world-changing debut ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’. It’s a record chockablock with guitar anthems he has since dismissed as “chip shop rock’n’roll” and – even more deliciously – “songs about fucking taxi ranks”. Recently released sixth album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, filled with lovely, louche piano ballads, absurdist lyrics and shimmering sci-fi soundscapes, has ushered in a very different Alex Turner.
For our money, the album is an absolute beauty; a delicate and complex masterwork, two parts fantastical concept album and one part naked confessional. Not everyone’s happy, though. While some of the negative reviews on Twitter were enjoyable even for those of us that dig the confusing record (“Arctic Monkeys album is just Alex Turner reading out a TripAdvisor review as the rest of the band tries to figure out WTF is happening”), the following cave man roar sums up many fans’ disgruntlement: “I DEMAND ARCTIC MONKEYS RE RELEASE THE ALBUM WITH GUITARS AND I DEMAND IT NOW”.
The general consensus among a certain kind of fan – who love only guitar music, Radio X, bucket hats and have acquired such a sickly sweet taste for Strongbow Dark Fruit cider that they’ve been nicknamed, in online parlance, a ‘Dark Fruit’ – is that, in leaving behind the guitar and wry observations on nightclubs, Turner has forgotten his working-class roots and lost touch with the everyman he represented back in 2006. Once, the argument goes, he made ‘real music’; now the success has gone to his head and he’s floating in outer space, light years from the very characteristics that made fans adore him in the first place.
Well, guess what? There’s a chance – just a chance – that the man whose incredible talent has earned him a reported net worth of £22m (and who’s been widely dubbed the most talented songwriter of his generation) was never much like you and me anyway. What if he was never really the naughty northern scally he seemed to be in 2006? The Alex Turner of 2018 famously wears a (fabulously controversial) beard, along with expensive suits and a general air of worldly insouciance. But what if this is just an act, a character he’s playing, just as he played the northern scally in the past?
In fact, Alex Turner plays a different character on almost every Arctic Monkeys album. 2007’s ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, rush-released to capitalise on the record-breaking success of its predecessor, is excellent, but is in many ways the Monkeys’ least interesting record. This is because it sees him reprise the cheeky chappy he played on ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, offering slice-of-life vignettes and insights on nights out. On 2009’s ‘Humbug’, though, he began his actorly long journey away from his hometown of Sheffield, travelling out to the Nevada desert with co-producer Josh Homme. Here, he grew out his hair and tried on the appearance a stoned-out desert-rock dude, the album confounding fans with its knotty rhythms and surrealistic lyrics (oh, for a time when ‘Humbug’ seemed like a weird Arctic Monkeys album).
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On 2011’s ‘Suck It And See’, he shape-shifted again, relocating to New York to portray the leather jack-wearing, Lou Reed-esque singer-songwriter, writing lovelorn guitar ballads that the rest of the band later fleshed out (he worked in a similar way this time around, albeit on piano). 2013’s ‘AM’, the record with which the band broke America, was Turner’s boldest reinvention, as he introduced a bequiffed, Elvis Presley-imitating rock God, swaggering through bruising riffs with sexed-up lyrics about the high-life in LA. The Monkeys headlined Glastonbury with this record and the performance perhaps captured them at their peak, Turner slurring a mid-Atlantic drawl and looking a million dollars in his ’50-style suit. Many fans took the piss out of the American accent.
Since then, he released a second album with The Last Shadow Puppets, his collaboration with old mucker Miles Kane. They left behind the Scott Walker pastiche of their 2006 debut ‘The Age of the Understatement’ and instead turned in ‘Everything You’ve Come To Expect’, a synthy, randy collection of West Coast sex jams. Here, he played the wasted party boy, letting his hair form a dishevelled mullet and delivering incoherent interviews that became memes.
He’s a method actor, slipping between roles, adopting new personas with each album release. Now, with the release of ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, he’s dropped the American accent. Watch his recent, revealing interview with Annie Mac on BBC Radio 1: he sounds more Sheffield than ever. Turner has swiftly killed off the teddy boy character he played on ‘AM’. This time around, he’s pitched his performance somewhere between skeezy bar poet and eccentric millionaire – see the new, wonderfully pretentious video for not-single ‘Four Out of Five’. This is, perhaps, a mask, just like the one he had on when he wore Fredy Perry and sang about “fucking taxi ranks”. Think you know Alex Turner? Nah mate!
Does he do this purposefully? Is it carefully mapped out, rehearsed, plotted? Perhaps not. Look closely at that Annie Mac interview. Turner clearly finds it very difficult to talk about his work: watch as he squirms and fumbles for the right words. Once this was put down to contrariness, but maybe he doesn’t understand how it works any more than we do. He’s obviously an incredibly creative person; maybe he simply channels this stuff instinctively. He created the space structure used for the cover for ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ himself, cutting and gluing and building, following his instincts. Perhaps that’s how he constructs the characters that he plays.
So, yes, theoretically, Alex Turner can go back to being the croaky voiced, polo-shirted everydude we once saw him as. But it won’t be any more ‘real’ than the persona he presents in 2018. Alex Turner’s parents are both teachers, so he was never the working-class hero he inhabited anyway. He’s something much more interesting: a David Bowie, a shape-shifting genius who was destined to become a rock star. “Sittin’ goin’ backwards?” Even he probably doesn’t know where he’s going next, but – to paraphrase Bowie – we know it won’t be boring.