Alex Turner: Modern Genius Or Charlatan?
Alex Turner is 26 years old. This seems impossibly young for a man who first appeared on the wider music scene in late 2005, as the hype surrounding the release of Arctic Monkeys debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not reached impossibly unrealistic levels for expectation to be met. As with most ‘overnight sensations’, the night in question was, in reality, a lengthy period of foundation laying, honing of skills and word of mouth. The band were performing and recording as early as 2003, which means that Turner, the songwriter, was actively writing the songs that constituted that record breaking debut album between the ages of 17 and 19.
Needless to say, the majority of the world’s population were not writing the soon-to-be fastest selling debut album by a British band at that age. The hype for that first album became as ominous as a horizon darkened by a flotilla of Zeppelins, offering only a destiny of disappointment. But the album soared under the strength of Turner’s songs, connecting immediately with the young music fans being forced to sustain their finer tastes on the music of previous generations, sadly living a youth in the 2000s, the decade of anti-music and one album wonders. The unmistakeably British songs about the strangely dull nightlife we were all leading was a huge mirror held up to every young person in the UK, and to all corners of the globe; and behind that mirror was an awkward, skinny boy from Sheffield who was already warranting another great British tradition – being labelled a genius at the earliest available opportunity.
There was undoubted talent, that was clear to see. To communicate so articulately with that many people on such basic a subject as what we get up to on nights out demonstrates the touch of a gifted writer. But simply capturing a zeitgeist does not a genius make. In the preceding decade, Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher, and to a lesser extent, Jarvis Cocker, all captured the hedonistic glory of the mid 1990s, but of the three, only Albarn can realistically lay claim to having since approached that fabled term of ‘musical genius’ for the sheer scale and quality of his work. Using this basic premise, and by looking even further back to the those past heroes in faded photographs who are firmly ensconced as rock royalty, is it fair to say that Alex Turner is being overlooked? Should he be considered among the greats even though he is a young contemporary artist?
What came after Whatever People Say I Am, That Is What I Am Not is equally as important as that album itself. Turner could have steered the band to the safety of the middle of the road, writing the same album three more times, each one a more concentrated, tamer version of that initial explosion. That would have satisfied a lot of people; the mainstream would have lapped it up and frothed at the mouth at the unsuccessful recreation of something that used to be sacred, as is their want. The deep lying, Springsteenesque urge for romanticising a time and a place while simultaneously straining to escape it would have been lost, and without that desire there would have been no album to start with. Fortunately, though, Alex Turner, is not concerned with satisfying the masses. Indeed, in an interview he claimed that ‘we want to get better rather than bigger.’
The same mantra has served many of the greatest musical talents particularly well, helping them forge lengthy, varied careers of experimentation, reinvention and seemingly nonchalant revolution. Bob Dylan is without doubt the greatest singer/songwriter in the history of music. His songs, of which there are far too many classics to even begin to start a list, are the resultant blend of sublime poetry and music. Nobody has done this better than Dylan. But this staggering level of quality was maintained across many guises; from the yokel country singer, to protester, to ‘Judas’ turning electric, to cryptic philosopher – each stage bringing with it different looks and different sounds to keep the fans transfixed.
Then, of course, there is music’s greatest shape-shifter; David Bowie. A man who literally became characters of his own invention, recorded and toured an album, and then moved on to the next project. He wasZiggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, he embraced minimalism during his Berlin years, he was in Tin Machine, dabbled in electronica and then became the elder statesman of British rock music. His songs are as unashamedly intellectual as he is himself, and his sartorial changes are as numerous as they are iconic. The almost stubborn refusal to remain in one musical dwelling for too long has to be applauded, if not always awed.
In comparison to these two titans, at least, Turner is of course leagues behind, but only through default; he is only 26 years old, after all. He, too, is an unabashed poet; the current king of couplets, the master of metaphors and the vox populi turned drawer of the veil; his metamorphosis from awkward Sheffield wordsmith spouting songs to a disaffected, bland generation of neutral teenagers, to scraggy haired, dirty looking cryptic lyricist prowling the desert with Josh Homme, up to his new incarnation as a modern day teddy boy offers glimmers of a fearless Bowie, preferring to be the trend rather than embrace it. It’s impossible to imagine Alex Turner, the front man of a band who found fame via the internet and word of mouth, ever having the slightest interest in what a group of men in suits gathered around an office table would have to say about what his next look should look like.
Like Bowie and Dylan, and even crossing onto the hallowed ground of Lennon and McCartney, Turner’s changes have not just been in appearance, but in a rapid progression of musical style. While these changes certainly alienated some of his fans, shaking the hangers-on ruthlessly from the tree while they bemoaned a lack of ‘Mardier Bum’ and ‘I Bet You Still Look Good On The Dancefloor’, what he may have lost in fickle fan base numbers was more than compensated for in the solidifying of his credibility. The small step forward that Favourite Worst Nightmare constituted displayed a growth in maturity from the debut album, tackling a diverse range of subjects from the controversial defection of Andy Nicholson from the band, the new found trappings of fame and refreshingly simple, yet heart wrenching, love songs. Furthermore, as a portent for what was to come, Turner also further displayed his gift for painting incredibly vivid character driven songs in the greatest tradition of Ray Davies. Anyone who hasn’t visualised the prostitute and her environment from ‘When The Sun Goes Down’, the frustrated woman from ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ or the downright strange human being skulking bars in ‘Cornerstone’ perhaps doesn’t have the imagination that the songs deserve.
It was with the release of Humbug, followed in turn by Suck It And See, that fully distanced Arctic Monkeys from their past. Alex Turner himself described that past as ‘old chip shop rock and roll’, something that he felt he could not write anymore, not just literally, but without authenticity, too. Just in the way that the music of the youth needs to be sung by the young, the music of the working classes needs to be sung by the working class. It is a classic album-era musical conundrum; if singing songs about being poor and young makes you rich and famous, what do you sing about next? No audience wants to hear wealthy people continue to bleat about being poor; it equates to doe eyed teenagers singing about love, and the feeling of being condescended to is unbearable. So what did Alex Turner do next? Well, everything – almost. After Humbug’s drastic change of direction, Suck It And See displays the most diverse Arctic Monkey’s material to date. It’s about love, it’s about rock and roll, it’s about reflection and, in places, it’s about nothing much at all. It’s brilliantly irreverent, and channels a myriad of other artists to create a melodic mosaic that is an aural pleasure.
To date, Alex Turner has been the voice of the bored working class teenager, a storyteller, a balladeer, and a poet of many forms. Some of the songs and images he spins leave you lost in a maze in the depths of night, wondering which turn will come next and where it will lead you when it appears. You cannot second guess it, and when you do finally get to the end you feel an exhilaration, followed by an immediate urge to throw yourself back in and do it all over again to see if there was anything you missed. The given impression is that Alex Turner can be whatever he wants to be, it just depends which whim holds his imagination for long enough. Whichever route he takes, though, will undoubtedly be graced by this modern genius.