There will forever be an argument that lyrically, Alex Turner peaked with gems such as this: “I’ve seen him with girls of the night / And he told Roxanne to put on her red light / They’re all infected but he’ll be alright / Cause he’s a scumbag, don’t you know…”
I’m not really having that. Back when Arctic Monkeys’ first couple of albums came out, he was all about bursts of observational brilliance, and the kind of one-lines to match and maybe even surpass Pete Doherty’s “fewer more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap” part from ‘Time For Heroes’. Alex was a master at that from the off – the odd 10/20 words jumping out and smacking you right between the eyes (the Montague’s and Capulet’s bit in ‘…Dancefloor’, the ‘trackie bottoms’ in ‘A Certain Romance’, ‘Fluorescent Adolescent”s masterful “mecca dauber or a betting pencil?” tease). Those bits were so good that you perhaps didn’t notice that the words around them were more workmanlike in comparison.
Don’t get me wrong, I think his lyrics have always been top drawer. But in retrospect, when you look back at the early material you can see he’s still learning his craft.
Something changed around the time of ‘Suck It And See’, which is stuffed full of stupidly good lyrics. It’s easily one of the best break-up albums of modern times, which is saying something because I think they’re the most difficult to write – it helps if you’ve been there, of course, and you’d have to guess Alex really has judging by his songwriting around that time.
I can think of about ten great lyrics from ‘SIAS’ off the top of my head right now – the Dandelion & Burdock/post mix lemonade reference in the title track. What a line!! “Her steady hands may well have done the devil’s pedicure,” from ‘…Hellcat’. Round of applause, please. I could go on, but I won’t – just go and listen to it. Some kid (MRpsycho) on Songmeanings.com has even written an entire play around the album’s lyrics – that’s how much these words mean to people.
Anyway, the album marked the point when Alex became a truly great lyricist – somebody glimpsing the same playing field as Jarvis, Nick Cave, Patti Smith et al. The kind of artists who treat this stuff as a full-time job, rather than a mere craft.
There were points along the way where you could see hints of that promise, of course. Away from the big hits, these were often tucked away on Arctic Monkeys b-sides or album tracks – traditionally the place where bands seem to be at their most honest. Early b-side ‘Despair In The Departure Lounge’ is particularly beautiful, an aching, bruised ballad of what it’s like to find yourself aged 19 and on an 18-month world tour while your girlfriend’s stuck at home and you’ve only got Only Fools And Horses for company on an 11-hour flight. You can feel the heavy sadness in Alex’s voice, and it’s touching. The following line from that song is an acute and brave observation from someone so young and (at that point) famous:
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It seems as we become the winners
You lose a bit of summat
And half wonder if you want it
It’s his delivery – angry, teary – that makes it truly come alive.
The one theme that’s a constant throughout all of Alex’s lyrics, right from the start, is heartbreak. He’s GREAT at writing rabble rousers, the kind of songs that are sinking and drowning all at once under the weight of a love that – to paraphrase him – has a tendency to buckle.
“I heard an unhappy ending, It sort of sounds like you leaving,” goes ‘Piledriver Waltz’. “I heard the news that you’re planning, To shoot me out of a cannon”.
Are you welling up yet?? You should be. How about this, from ‘505’:
“I crumble completely when you cry
It seems like once again you’ve had to greet me with goodbye
I’m always just about to go and spoil the surprise
Take my hands off of your eyes too soon”
‘The Time Has Come Again’, from the Last Shadow Puppets 2008 album is another gem – it reminds me of the kind of half-poems, half-lyrics Paul Weller used to reel off in his more whimsical moments. Like Weller, it’s unreservedly, proudly English too, which is another Alex trait. It always amuses me when people say Arctic Monkeys have ‘gone American’, yet you still hear him singing in full-on northern brogue (the use of “summat” in ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ being the most recent example of that).
I could go on about the love theme endlessly here, quoting bits from ‘Stuck On The Puzzle’, ‘Reckless Serenade’, ‘Cornerstone’ and many more. They’re all great, but the two verses from ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ pasted below are particularly wonderful:
“Jealously in technicolor
Fear by name, love by numbers
Streetlamp amber, wanderlust
Hide her in a blunderbuss
“She looks as if she’s blowing a kiss at me
And suddenly the sky is a scissor
Sitting on the floor with a tambourine
Crushing up a bundle of love”
As for ‘AM’, ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ is near perfect, a festival anthem in waiting stuffed full of brilliant one-liners. Dirty and sleazy? Yes. But it’s also heaving with archaic, eccentric Hollywood bravado too. Elsewhere, ‘No 1 Party Anthem’ describes LA’s bar scene in such an alluring way that it rivals that other great Englishman marooned in the City of Angels, Morrissey.
Best of all is ‘Arabella’, the song about a woman Alex knows who “takes a sip of your soul” when she “wraps her lips around the Mexican coke”, before making “you wish that you were the bottle”. It’s silly, but it’s also one of his best lyrics yet:
“Arabella’s got some interstellagator skin boots
And a helter skelter around her little finger and I ride it endlessly
She’s got a Barbarella silver swimsuit
And when she needs a shelter from reality she takes a dip in my daydreams”
See – another rabble rouser. Long may it continue.