A decade after its release, Alex Turner’s ‘Submarine’ EP has lost none of its otherworldly power. The Arctic Monkeys frontman’s short, mellow collection of acoustic tunes – released 10 years ago today – perfectly complemented director Richard Ayoade’s classic come-of-age movie Submarine, which follows British teenager Oliver Tate’s (Craig Roberts) embattled attempts to save his parents’ marriage and lose his virginity before his 16th birthday.
The Sheffield songwriter has assumed various guises during his illustrious career, and the six-track EP perhaps represents his most thoughtful of all. You know the story by now: the first two Monkeys albums saw Turner cast himself as the loveable Yorkshire oik, before he and the band decamped to the desert with Josh Homme for 2009’s psych-rock stomper ‘Humbug’. By summer 2011, he’d transformed himself into a New York-based, leather-jacketed singer-songwriter who breathed the same air as Lou Reed for fourth album ‘Suck It And See’. The record arrived just a few months after the Submarine soundtrack and even featured a souped-up, electronic version of one of its tracks, ‘Piledriver Waltz’.
With ‘Submarine’, Turner subtly bridged the gap between his newfound pining sentimentality and the no-nonsense everyman persona of those first two albums. His disdain for pretension is evident when, on the swooning ‘Stuck On A Puzzle’, he croons, “I’m not the kind of fool who’s gonna sit and sing to you / About stars, girl”. Yet with the following line, “But last night I looked up into the dark half of the blue / And they’d gone backwards”, he immediately blurs the lines. You can imagine that lyric appearing on 2018’s astral ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, the album that reinvented the Monkeys as starry eyed art-rockers – and which outraged many fans of the more prosaic early work – can’t you?
Turner’s timeless soundtrack captures all the conflicted feelings of adolescent love and loss integral to Ayoade’s directorial debut. Dealing with heartbreak (the aching ‘Hiding Tonight’) and clumsy attempts at seduction (the aforementioned ‘Stuck On a Puzzle’), the songs evoke strange feelings of nostalgia for our own awkward teenage years – albeit reimagined through the aesthetically beautiful prism of Submarine. The Arctic Monkeys frontman is an adept craftsman of alternative worlds, and this EP proves no exception.
The record is immersive, dreamlike. On 54-second opener ‘Stuck On A Puzzle – intro’, he establishes the pensive tone with descending piano notes, the aural equivalent of pebbles splashing against the tide. Harnessing the spirit of Tate’s confused, anguished teenage state, ‘Hiding Tonight’ captures the introspective anxieties inherent to adolescent infatuation. Lines such as “Tomorrow I’ll be faster, I’ll catch what I’ve been chasing after and have time to play / But I’m quite alright hiding today” underline the tensions and apprehensions of youth. The track utilises the surrealist imagery of ‘Humbug’ songs ‘Crying Lightning’ and ‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’, with Turner offering elaborate lyrical meanderings: “You can leave off my lid and I won’t even lose my fizz / I’ll be the polka dots-type / I’ll probably swim through a few lagoons”.
Alex Turner’s trademark ability to fuse existential and philosophical concepts with mundane urban realities arguably peaked on the ‘Submarine’ EP. Take this perfect example from arpeggiated ditty ‘It’s Hard To Get Around The Wind’: “It’s like you’re tryna get to Heaven in a hurry / And the queue was shorter than you thought it would be / And the doorman says, ‘You need to get a wristband’”. In just four lines, Turner somehow encapsulated the universal obstacles presented by love, life and, erm, nightclubbing.
And it’s a sign of ‘Piledriver Waltz’’s brilliance that he couldn’t help adding a different version of it to ‘Suck it and See’. Crammed with elaborate lines such as, “You look like you’ve been for breakfast at the Heartbreak Hotel / And sat in the back booth by the pamphlets and the literature on how to lose”, the track is heartfelt and painful, yet savagely comic. Again, Turner’s marriage of the majestic and mundane is totally encapsulated by one couplet: “If you’re gonna try and walk on water / Make sure you wear your comfortable shoes”.
At the end of last year, Craig Roberts told NME that the success of Submarine the film “felt like a moment”, and one that meant that “all of a sudden I was able to go into rooms that I’d never been able to get into before”. Alex Turner had long since passed through that looking glass, of course, but the ‘Submarine’ EP helped him to do so artistically too. After the release of these beautiful songs, with which he married his burgeoning lyrical ambition to his early observational writing, he was able to travel to the moon and back.
What was to follow – Arctic Monkeys’ 2013 US-conquering rock opus ‘AM’ and the divisive ‘Tranquility Base…’ – would be even more sublime.