Not for the first time, Alex Turner has lost his train of thought. In a booth of a downtown Manhattan diner, the Arctic Monkeys frontman is hunched forward, grasping for words to describe their new album – a black-tie orgy of cinematic soul, lurid funk and perfumed 60s strings. A waiter swoops in to save him. Would Turner like some milk for his coffee? “I’ll have a bit of milk, yes please,” he says. She returns a minute later, and Turner, having strung together no more than half a sentence, eagerly tops up his mug. “OK,” he says, rubbing his hands. “OK. Now we’ve got it.”
During our two-hour conversation, the affable introvert is determinedly, delightfully animated: he bashes imaginary woodblocks, sprawls across his moulded seat, clasps thin air and shakes it like a Magic 8 Ball. His turquoise jumper’s V-neck reveals a thin gold necklace, which he fondles while digressing into monologues on the genius of composer David Axelrod. Turner has been portrayed as aloof and evasive, but he is a man of pensive silences – an ambivalent overthinker trapped in an eccentric entertainer’s body.
He tries to describe orchestrating that new album, The Car. “Rather than strings on top of rock,” he says finally, “I was interested in switching the ‘rock band’ bit on and off.” He tweaks levels on a mixing desk in his mind’s eye. “With the Sculptures song” – the dizzyingly gorgeous Sculptures of Anything Goes – “the ‘rock band’ fader comes up for two bars here and there, and then it’s switched back off.”
He inspects this thought, then flings out his arms and freezes. He looks like a magician alarmed the rabbit is missing from his hat. Slowly, he reboots. “And I don’t remember doing that quite so … deliberately before,” he concludes. A boyish smile. “Phew!” He clutches his chest. “I didn’t think I was gonna get to the end of that sentence.”
But Turner, 36, is nothing if not acutely self-aware and very funny with it. But surely this superstar, whose new haircuts trend on Twitter, is too famous to be such a brooder. Each of his eight albums, including the two with the Last Shadow Puppets, his project with friend Miles Kane, has debuted at No 1 in the UK. Since its 2013 release, the Monkeys’ juggernaut of a fifth album, AM, has taken just one week’s holiday from the UK Top 100. It spent most of September back inside the Top 10, after the band headlined Reading and Leeds festivals.
The AM era lasted a couple of years – long enough for the Sheffield boys’ image as pomade-slick, leather-jacketed Los Angeles dirtbags to stick in the public memory for good. So when Arctic Monkeys got back to mischief, with 2018’s fantastically strange Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, fans were confounded. Turner had assembled a cast of distractible narrators to interrogate modern society – technology, politics, hyperreal LA – in a retro-futurist concept album set in a lunar colony. On stage, dressed like a 70s geography teacher, he now addressed crowds with comical formality. Sceptics said he had lost the plot, calling it an act of self-sabotage – or worse, a class betrayal. In Sheffield, somebody graffitied a coffin on a gate at Hunter’s Bar – the area immortalised in Fake Tales of San Francisco. “Hey Alex,” the caption read. “How’s California?”
While tighter and grander than its predecessor, Arctic Monkeys’ seventh album is blissfully unconcerned with correcting the record. It swings from a louche, movie-soundtrack intro to Portishead-stark noir, improbably catchy yacht-funk and the poppy bombast of Elliott Smith’s LA era. At times, Turner dips into a slick, syrupy croon, though he recoils from the word’s stuffy baggage.
“You sort of wish there was a way around the things attached to that word [croon],” he says. “But yeah, everything’s come down a little bit. And I like that, because if it’s come down here” – he runs a finger from his forehead to his ribcage – “it’s out of your head. It’s more coming from …”
He hunts for the word. The heart? I suggest, as he flings invisible confetti from his chest.
“The heart,” he agrees, sounding a bit uncomfortable. “Or even better: the gut.”
Turner is not all the way out of his head just yet. He sings much of The Car in a falsetto that trapezes between Sly Stone and David Byrne. The anxious melodies strike a delicate balance with the sumptuous strings. “You don’t want it to get gooey,” he reasons. “But it’s nice to get to the perimeter of that. There may have been discussions about where that line is, and how many times you can get close to it.”
Still, Turner’s bamboozling lyrics preclude slushiness. Traces of Yorkshire chansonnier Jake Thackray and punk-poet John Cooper Clarke remain, but Turner’s bon mots are now elaborately encrypted. Struggle though you may to picture festival crowds bellowing some of the lyrics here (Hello You opens: “Lego Napoleon movie / written in noble gas-filled glass tubes / underlined in sparks”), you can never rule it out. The similarly inscrutable 505, an album cut from 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare, recently caused a sensation on TikTok.
Maybe tackling impenetrable lyrics helps bring us deeper into a song, I suggest. Turner laughs. “I like the idea of you putting that in here and everybody going: ‘Ah, I dunno, sounds tough. We won’t give it a listen after all.’” He admits to scribbling notes in his printed lyric book, teasing out themes mysterious even to him. “The Annotated Lyrics,” he jokes, imitating a 1950s ad man. “Get that stocking filler out for Christmas.”
From the moment in the mid-00s when Arctic Monkeys blew up, Turner has longed to go incognito. He strode undercover into his new public life, a frightened teenager hiding inside a big swagger, collecting shiny awards for songs he had written for mates of mates in pub backrooms. In 2006, the band released what was then the UK’s all-time fastest-selling debut album – a death sentence for his man-of-the-people, kitchen-sink writing style.
On 2009’s Humbug, co-produced by Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Turner escaped into a rock archetype. The band’s hairier second phase amped up the sleaze and elliptical lyrics, culminating in the darkly spectacular AM. By this point, the bequiffed Turner was harder to read, particularly in his divisive speech at the 2014 Brit Awards. “That rock’n’roll, eh,” he drawled with indeterminate sincerity. “It’s always waiting there, just around the corner. Ready to make its way back through the sludge and smash through the glass ceiling, looking better than ever. Yeah, that rock’n’roll …”
At the mention of the speech, and its concluding mic drop, Turner winces, sucking air through his teeth. But, I say, since Tranquility, the moment looks more like performance art – perhaps it anticipated his scepticism towards the rock construct. He listens intently, then, on the last point, springs back as if harpooned to his seat. “That’s interesting, yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says, head bobbing vigorously. He chews it over, talking half to himself. “So we’re saying it’s tied to AM, because of the haircut and … that performer …”
He seems unsure just how much of himself was in the mic-dropping rock star.
“When you think about that, and the clothes,” he continues, “I wasn’t doing that with [fourth album] Suck It and See or [third] Humbug. It wasn’t grease in the hair.” He pauses again, considering each album’s “performer” – always a fractured reflection of himself. “Normally, the record you make encourages a certain style of performance. But thinking about the performer in relation to Tranquility, or even this thing” – meaning the new album – “I have considered that you can invert that. The performer can influence the music, rather than the other way around.”
The Car’s performer more closely resembles the Turner I meet today: brilliant company but palpably self-scrutinising – a far cry from the headstrong Brits character. Turner wrote most of the album at the piano, souping up Tranquility’s vanquished lounge singer with a spritz of Rat Pack razzmatazz. Turner and the band’s producer, James Ford, separately drafted string arrangements that the composer Bridget Samuels simplified and edited.
Turner seems mildly embarrassed by the prospect of using strings live (a proposed orchestral TV special was deemed too predictable), but the album sounds just as exquisite without them. During a stunning show at Brooklyn’s Kings theatre the week of our interview, the band premiere three songs: the resplendent There’d Better Be a Mirrorball, a fingerpicked heart-warmer called Mr Schwartz and soon-to-be staple Body Paint, whose gnomic chorus crowdsurfs along a festival-slaying melody: “Straight from the cover shoot,” Turner coos, “There’s still a trace of body paint / On your legs and on your arms and on your face.”
As with 505 or Crying Lightning, it is a head-scratcher fated for mass seduction. “Not exactly what you’d imagine singing over the loud bit,” Turner concurs, chuckling. The body paint could represent almost anything: a literal costume; a stubborn artistic persona; or in a spunkier reading, the residue of an illicit affair. “But it’s as much about the musical ideas as the lyrics,” Turner says. “On Mirrorball, before the words even come in, that instrumental piece [establishes] the feel of the record”: wistful, enigmatic, acutely reminiscent of 70s European cinema. “All right,” Turner recalls thinking after writing it in 2020. “This feels like how the next record starts.”
Turner now lives between London and Paris with the French singer-songwriter Louise Verneuil. He composed most of the album alone, using the technique he road-tested on AM and adopted wholesale on Tranquility: compose, demo, inspect, tweak and re-record, repeat the process to death and eventually add drums and vintage keyboards. Finally: bring in the band.
In the summer of 2021, Arctic Monkeys convened at Butley Priory, a wedding venue and makeshift studio in Suffolk. On a whim, Turner brought his 60mm video camera to document the sessions, later compiling his footage for the impressively chic There’d Better Be a Mirrorball video. “That gave everybody a bit of room,” he says. “James [Ford] definitely didn’t mind that I had something to play with.” During downtime, the band watched the Euros and nipped outdoors for kickabouts. “I do get caught up in those tournaments. Something about that feeling connects you to when you were a kid. You find yourself thinking about Euro 96. And then it ends, and you almost feel a bit mad for feeling like that.”
That proximity to yesteryear haunts the record, not least in the creeping jazz element, which evokes his jazz-musician dad’s records and saxophone noodlings in Turner’s childhood home. “It came out the front in Tranquility, and there’s definitely a bit more this time,” he says. “It’s one of those things that you try to fly quite close to without [crossing over]. That music you’re around when you’re a kid always has a special power.”
Strikingly, the more sentimentality creeps into the music, the less forthright emotion surfaces in Turner’s lyrics. I ask if he is equally withholding in private – does he find it harder, as he gets older, to tell people he loves them? He laughs. “No, no, I don’t think so. I like to think that outside songwriting, I find it more straightforward to be direct.” He is prone to embarrassment by lyrics from bygone years. Perhaps the more elemental style, with fewer obvious footholds, helps minimise the cringing? “I like the idea that I’m getting better at the … I sort of want to say distillation.” He handles the word cautiously. “I think I’m better at picking the moment to expose the idea behind the song. But you have to be comfortable with the idea that things don’t have to be a pop song.”
What has remained constant since the beginning, he says, “is the instinct of it all”. Even the meticulous experiments of Tranquility and The Car stem from his faith in his bloody-minded intuition. I remind him of something he said, aged 19, about the perils of fame: “When you want it and you get obsessive, you mould yourself to be whatever they want you to be.”
He laughs. “It’s a heck of a time to drop a quote from 2005, when we’re talking about stuff to be embarrassed about.” But he agrees Arctic Monkeys’ instincts and gang mentality insulated them from industry games and greed. “The name of the band seems to allude to how limited the expectations were,” he adds. “If you realised you were gonna be doing this 20 years later, you might’ve had another hour in that meeting.”
Fatalistic fans have already forecast the band’s demise based on the single’s valedictory lyrics, but while the album abounds with goodbyes, Turner seems full of optimism about the future. His bandmates are, too. “You can tell when they’re excited and when there’s that palpable indifference,” he says, grinning. Does he still get much of the latter? “Surely. Intermittently. I’m grateful for it sometimes.” He drifts off again with a dreamy look, zeroing in on the right turn of phrase. “Between the band and James Ford …” he begins, unhappy with the imperfect words he has found. “I can’t do it on my own, I guess is what I’m trying to say.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism