An Alex Turner mixtape

Earlier this year, at Salford’s Sounds From The Other City, I caught Scottish singer-songwriter Hamish Hawk’s show. Like many in the room, I’d not previously heard of him, but was quickly enraptured by his commanding stage presence and sparkling lyricism. And it made me reflect: I have a real passion for a literary songwriter. You know the kind; a pithy wit, a clever clogs, someone with a crisp turn of phrase. Over the last decade I’ve been enamoured with the withering world view of Father John Misty, and the American underbelly-prodding of St Vincent. Going back further, I was spellbound by tales of alienated afternoons at the cemetery gates from that guy in The Smiths. The sweet spot is someone not too wordy (this isn’t poetry), but someone who is poetic in their musings on the minutiae of everyday life. Someone who can bend words and music to their will.

Alex Turner came along in 2005, around my 15th birthday, with a song that was about what a girl might look like on a dancefloor. I didn’t realise at the time what it was that cast Arctic Monkeys apart from the countless other indie bands around, but in hindsight it was clearly the writing. The familiar mundane realities of teenagedom in Yorkshire, put up there in vivid widescreen. It was electrifying. I stood next to my hi-fi the day I got my hands on the CD, my best mate and I enthralled by each lyric.

Some passions fade over time, but my love of Turner’s songwriting has sustained, with help from the evolution of the Monkeys’ sound over their last two albums.

In honour of the recent release of The Car then, here are 10 Alex Turner tracks that ooze songwriting genius.

‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’ – 2:57

The first chunk of this tape starts with some very obvious selections but I make no apologies for that, because I re-listened to ‘Fake Tales’ ahead of the new album and it’s still as sharp as ever. The sarcasm and wit Turner dispatches through his acerbic delivery, whether through the famous New York City / Rotherham pay-off, or “the proof that love’s not only blind, but deaf” remains deliciously timeless.

‘505’ – 4:14

The closer on second album Favourite Worst Nightmare, ‘505’ felt like a coming of age in Turner’s songwriting. Trading the subject matter of scrappy small town hijinks for illicit pursuits in hotel rooms with an accompanying woozy atmosphere, it was a show-stopping early moment in his and his band’s careers, showing a versatile depth to his songwriting.

‘My Mistakes Were Made For You’ – 3:07

In hindsight, Alex Turner was prolific in those early years wasn’t he? The Last Shadow Puppets’ debut made it 3 albums in 3 years, and the lush, orchestral sound of The Car was foreshadowed on the heavily Scott Walker-influenced LP. ‘My Mistakes Were Made For You’ is Turner’s Bond theme, the album highlight with some delightful alliteration (“she was bitten on her birthday”, “around your crooked conscious she will wind”) to befit the drama in the strings.

‘Cornerstone’ – 3:18

One of his best, ‘Cornerstone’ in other hands is a rather sleazy and pathetic tale of a man traipsing around pubs looking for comfort after losing a lover. But, I mean. The storytelling. The detail. “I smelt your scent on the seatbelt / And kept my shortcuts to myself.” I need not say more.

‘Hiding Tonight’ – 3:07

I love Turner’s EP of songs made for the Submarine soundtrack. It was as if, freed from the expectations of his band and using the context of the film, he was able to let down any snark and inhabit the role of the hopeless romantic. ‘Hiding Tonight’ is a beautifully tender tune; Turner taking on the role of the daydreamer able to make bombastic plans for tomorrow from the safety of today’s hiding place. The way it concludes: “and you’d better bring a change of clothes, so we can sail our laughing pianos along a beam of light” is wonderful.

‘Love is a Laserquest’ – 3:11

Turner has rarely sounded as heartbroken as he does on ‘Love is a Laserquest’ from fourth album Suck It and See – which, as much as it’s hard for him, it’s great for his fans, because this is poetry in motion. The beauty of the song is in the specific language he uses to describe routine love song wonderings about a former lover moving on (“do you look into the mirror to remind yourself you’re there, or has somebody’s goodnight kisses got that covered?”), or dark nights of the soul (“when I’m hanging on by the rings around my eyes, and I convince myself I need another”). For years this one was hiding in plain sight for me, and years later I realised what a classic it is.

‘No.1 Party Anthem’ – 4:03

I’m sure that Alex Turner sometimes just comes up with a title first and thinks about the concept later. ‘No.1 Party Anthem’ seems like one of these, and for me it sums up what was simultaneously appealing and annoying about AM: by now rock and roll songwriting seemed so easy for him, it felt like he was locked into a comfort zone of enjoyable but surface-level thrills. It’s another tale of night-time pulling updated for the band’s Californian lifestyle, complete with compelling scene-setting (“leather jacket collar popped like antenna – never knowing when to stop”). By now we’ve heard enough of these that this one shouldn’t be so damn satisfying, but it really is.

‘The Dream Synopsis’ – 3:04

The second Last Shadow Puppets album is mostly not great, but it does have a couple of superb moments. One of these is the closing track, which is Alex Turner literally just talking about one of his dreams – the kind where the present and the deep recesses of the past get surreally mashed together. Instead of turning the dream into some elaborate creation with a deeper meaning, he breaks the fourth wall, ending each verse by catching himself, sighing “isn’t it boring when I talk about my dreams?” Somehow it isn’t. The self-ridicule contrasted with sweeping cinematic strings turn it into a sublime tongue-in-cheek moment instead.

‘She Looks Like Fun’ – 3:03

Tranquility Base was the sound of Turner thrillingly rediscovering his songwriting mojo, trading the guitar for a piano and embracing science fiction with all its weirdness. Sometimes I feel alone in the esteem I hold this album and I wonder if it’s because of songs like this. You could read the repetitive chorus as creepy and a little dull. Or if you buy into the technological subtext, it becomes the perfect summation of our modern existence. The monotony of endless swipes through Tinder, decisions driven by superficial attraction. The way the process opens up like the verses when you match with a person with the “smile like [they] got a straw in something tropical”. Or the scrolling through “Good morning, cheese burger” Instagram posts. Or how on Twitter “there’s no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be”. Directing his focus to these purposes produced some of my favourite songs of his.

‘Jet Skis On The Moat’ – 3:18

It’s easy to describe The Car as ‘cinematic’. But it does play like a film: each song a vividly represented scene rendered in the sonic equivalent of CinemaScope. Often the real meanings of these songs are obscured by abstract scenes like the one ‘Jet Skis On The Moat’ depicts. Is it a metaphor for a ludicrous display of opulence? Is that in turn Turner commentating on his own band’s big budget musical productions? Whatever it means, its charm lies in the turns of phrase that illustrate why I and many others fell in love with Turner’s music in the first place.

There’s a narrative thread of endings that runs across the record. The end of relationships. Maybe even a glimpse of the end of this Arctic Monkeys thing? I’m purely speculating. But if the latter is true, and we are approaching “the last time they’re gonna ride”, with phrases like “your saw-toothed lover boy was quick off the mark” and “that’s long enough in the sunshine for one night”, they really have shot the closing scenes in a beautiful way.

Words by Tom Burrows

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s