Alex Turner’s lyricism is akin to some rogue bastard offspring of an interstellar Sylvia Plath and a particularly drunken Coen Brothers character. Then this mutant human cannonball of wit and benevolent intent staggered into a barber’s for a bowl cut met John Cooper Clarke while waiting and, afterwards, was erroneously given a microphone instead of a lollipop for being a good boy. In front of which, the mutant somehow stumbled its way to offering up beatific rhapsody for the masses. If that’s not too mad a thing to say?
His wordplay is as rock and roll as a Stratocaster wrapped around the fender of a Cadillac, as Yorkshire as a pot of tea at a Test match, and as hearty as a warm busty embrace. In a career whereby the songsmith has now been in the Arctic Monkeys longer than he hasn’t, he has traversed the far reaches of songwriting to return with an incredibly singular style that somehow still lends itself to commercial success. This wayward journey has catapulted the Monkeys to the upper reaches of the alternative scene worldwide.
It can be quite easy to romanticise the past and lament the so-called drought in guitar music at present, but all too often, this has to do with not recognising the greatness surrounding us. Even a championed indie icon like Alex Turner doesn’t usually get touted amongst the rarefied few considered the very greatest lyricists of all time. Still, as you’ll see from the rich depth in the songwriting below, he is a celestial talent that can rub shoulders happily with any of the brightest stars.
As a caveat to the list, they’re no lines from The Last Shadow Puppets featured, as I wouldn’t want to be doing Miles Kane any disservice and stealing his gems. Let’s explore his songwriting as we journey across Turner’s stratosphere and peruse the most brilliant and peculiar fluorescent little lines flickering away in his world of song.
15 of Alex Turner’s greatest lines:
Waste No Time – ‘The View From the Afternoon’
“Anticipation has a habit to set you up
for disappointment in evening entertainment but,
Tonight there’ll be some love.”
From the very first belting blitzkrieg of Matt Helders’ drums, the Arctic Monkeys debut album burst into life like an incendiary attack on the mainstream; Alex Turner’s lyrics were no different. There are many notable things in Turner’s songwriting, more than this rundown could ever hope to encapsulate, but amongst the most obvious and unique is just how many lines he manages to punctuate in song. His lyrics are so profuse that he inhabits a style of verse almost comparable to rap (see also: ‘Pretty Visitors’ and ‘Balaclava’).
This trio of lines that opened the Sheffield scoundrels’ official songbook delineated what they were all about in a snarling sermon to the ceremony of youth culture. Delivered in a single breath, these lines could almost serve as a meta mantra for the record. There’s relatable realism drench in a sort of viscerally poetic energy. This energy eviscerates the banal trope of ‘it’s grim being young’ that has now become oversaturated to the point of being beige. The ferocity with which Turner packs lyrics into verse catalyses the songs with a sense of immediacy, and this ‘waste no time’ approach wards off any signs of stagnation.
Cutthroat – ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’
“You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham
So get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook.”
For all of his humming and hawing in interviews, Turner does not mince his words when it comes to songwriting. He has never been as political or prolific with his societal appraisals to ever be considered ‘the spokesman of a generation’ in the Bob Dylan style of old; nevertheless, he sparingly exhibits a canny knack of postulating unheralded constitutional truths.
‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’ took on poseur-culture amidst the indie scene, and this line, in particular, elucidated the message that was yelled home on ‘Perhaps Vampires…’ – the message that the Monkeys were far too original ever to be imitators. There’s enough mirth and exuberance in his lyrics to avoid cynicism, but when he wants to be scathing, he can certainly pack a caustic punch.
Colloquial Colouring – ‘If You Were There, Beware’
“We require your grief, the thugs help the thieves
As they’re trying to rob the words from her gob and
Take the source of the innocence.”
In the early days of the Arctic’s when they were breaking British records, there was always a discussion whether they were just ‘too British’ to make it in the states (or perhaps more aptly put, ‘too working class’). Fortunately, they have since gone on to ridicule such assertions amassing an ever-growing following on the far side of the pond. And, in actual fact, it is the very use of colloquial language that first posed a concern that has since gone on to colour Turner’s lyrics with an endearing charm that has broken down defences the world over.
As with nearly all of Turner’s most notable tropes, it provides his songwriting with an absolute singularity. It is clear that Turner is aware of the inexorable interweaving of identity and language and has not been prepared to shelve the familiar idiomatic phrasing of his upbringing in order to portray a more palatable ‘someone-else’. Whether it’s using the word ‘mardy’ (barely heard outside of Yorkshire), making use of references to ’70s sitcom characters like Frank Spencer or naming an album Suck It And See (which understandably doesn’t translate overseas), the use of localised language and references has imbued the work with sincerity and offered a glimpse at the eclectic lads behind it.
The Essence of Youth – ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’
“You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your nightdress,
Discarded all the naughty nights for niceness, Landed in a very common crisis
Everything’s in order in a black hole
Nothing seems as pretty as the past though.”
Since Sylvia Plath’s days lamenting the bureaucratic steps from youth into adulthood in poems like The Applicant or Jack Kerouac documenting the ways of the wayward youth of the counterculture movement, capturing youth has always had an essential presence in pop-culture and literature. In recent times, however, it seems to have faded somewhat from music.
Alex Turner keeps the neon bulb of youth flickering by encapsulating it in all of its guises. Throughout his career, he has ‘revelled in the nostalgia’ of youth. This particular tale of transitioning from fishnets to nightdresses is one we have all seen people partake in. He might not regale it quite as reverentially as the aforementioned authors, but as far as painting poetry onto a catchy bassline goes, ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ does as good a job as any.
Literary Metaphors – ‘Fire And The Thud’
“And now you’re hiding in my soup
And this book reveals your face
And there’s splashing in my eyelids
As the concentration continually breaks.”
Turner’s use of metaphor is near unrivalled in music. It stretches the depth of his back catalogue and traverses well into B-sides like ‘Catapult’. Poetical descriptions seem to be where he feels most at home. They are his natural habitat as a songwriter. Much like his primary lyrical inspiration, John Cooper Clarke, Turner uses kaleidoscopically colourful language to twist the familiar and relatable with an enigmatic and vivid edge.
Taken from ‘Fire And The Thud’, this verse casts the idea of infatuation into a bowl of soup (and yes, I’m quite certain he says soup and not sleep) and has love-lust leaping from the pages of a book.
He is so profuse with this method of literary metaphor, however, that to pick just one example from his annuls of analogies would seem like a barbaric butchering of some truly stellar songwriting merely for the sake of article structuring. At Far Out, we wouldn’t like to let you down like that, so here’s two more below:
b). ‘It’s Hard to Get Around the Wind’ Submarine
“It’s like you’re tryin’ to 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”
This wistful gem could mean many things, but the feeling of a dream presenting itself before you were ready, or else coming to fruition in a mutated form, is something we can all relate to and thus lend it a meaning of our own. It could be a delivery coming before you expected it only to learn you ordered the wrong thing, or it could be wrangling a date only to realise you preferred the thrill of the chase, either way, it is beautifully worded.
c). ‘One Point Perspective’ Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino
“By the time reality hits, the chimes of freedom fell to bits
The shinin’ city on the fritz.”
Has the apocalypse ever sounded more poetic than this? Plucked from a song that may well be a songwriting highpoint, these two lines exhibit his sumptuous songwriting and insightful intelligence in one hit.
Turner Phrase – ‘Suck It and See’
“You’re rarer than a can of dandelion and burdock
And those other girls are just post mix lemonade.”
His descriptive work is so strong that it warrants two discreet categories. ‘Literary Metaphors’ details lush linguistics, but this particular example shows off his rather more singular trope avoiding wordplay.
Turner’s songs are all full of clever twisted puns. Here, Alex sets up the familiar ‘you’re one in a million’ sort of tomfoolery that is far too saturated in pop music and lends a unique phrasing to it that could have only come out of his mouth. He’s not the sort of fool to ‘sit and sing to you about stars girls’, but rather the sort of fella who’s going to compare you to a rare brand of pop. As I say, who would use that phrasing bar, Turner?
Heartfelt Honesty – ‘Love is a Laserquest’
“When I’m pipe and slippers and rocking chair
Singing dreadful songs about summer
Will I have found a better method
Of pretending you were just some lover?”
Behind all the playfulness, pithy wordplay and occasional societal disdain is a rather a sort of secret sincerity that often creeps through the murk and into the fore. It may not be the jarring soul-bearing of a Leonard Cohen or the heart pouring clarity of a Joni Mitchell, but in its own guarded way, it is equally as touching when he croons lines like this one.
The notion of an older Turner perched on some porch somewhere at a quirky residence he shares with Miles Kane, smoking a pipe and gazing skyward thinking of all his past leggy lovers, is a heart-tugging image. This line might actually be one of the most romantic and poetic views on love lost ever placed in song, and it achieves it without ever being overbearing.
Rock Lexicon – ‘Arabella’
“Arabella’s got some interstellar-gator skin boots
And a Helter-Skelter ’round her little finger and I ride it endlessly.”
Within Turner’s songwriting, there is any number of references to things like storms, leather, moody weather in general, glasses, boots, studded headlocks and more moody weather. All of which conjures a dark and brooding sense of rock imagery. When opening your mouth forces performance, then what comes out of it may as well uphold some rock iconography if you want to be a frontman.
In this case, you’ve got Helter-Skelter’s – well within the field of rock language thanks to The Beatles and gator skin boots, which any ZZ Top fan would tell you is the most rock and roll footwear there is. The near ever-present storminess in his lyrics might be absent on this occasion, but the beautiful twist on being wrapped around someone’s little finger more than makes up for it.
Humour – ‘Pretty Visitors’
“What came first the chicken or the dickhead?”
Humour is never far from the forefront of Turner’s songwriting. There are a plethora of examples within his back catalogue, so much so that ‘Don’t Sit Down…’ could almost serve as a novelty song if it wasn’t built on such a gilded rock-solid riff.
It’s a quirky sort of humour that Al propagates more often than not, and this ‘double take’ inducing line typifies it. There is an added layer of humour to these sorts of epitaphs because it seems like the sort of thing one of the four-piece has mentioned in the studio earlier that day and it’s been jokingly worked into song thereafter.
Surrealism – ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’
“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.”
Sometimes Alex Turner’s work exists in the quirky sci-fi realm of a post-modernist writer like Kurt Vonnegut. Sometimes, it breaches the brink of that realm and gleefully marauders into the off-piste terrain of surrealism. Turner’s wordplay can often be found playing in the same park as Bowie’s wild and colourful poetry. If “I’m an alligator / I’m a mama-papa comin’ for you” is one of the greatest opening lines in music then Turner has definitely crafted some in the same ilk.
This chorus is taken from ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ is a chronically underrated tune and the lyrics, as ever, are singular and stylish. It’s hard to tell what exactly this means but the imagery and lushness delivery props this surreal quartet of lines up on a crux of uber-creative craft.
Self-Referential – ‘Star Treatment’
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make.”
Much like his occasional heartfelt honesties, he often lends his songs a sort of subtly unguarded sincerity by placing himself firmly within them. Whilst it is evident that he fully backs every word he writes with artistic integrity, these moments where he crops up in his own tune are actually the opposite of self-gratifying and offer up a look at the man behind the song. In doing so, he lends the songs an undeniable relatability.
This particular line is somehow simultaneously one of the rawest and yet weirdly most refined of his career. It is the sort of line that belches out in an instant then gets stressed over forever more until it sets in the stone of the song. It’s less of a lyric and more of a mantra, and it’s a mantra that many of us could use self-referentially at that.
Astute Psychology – ‘Do I Wanna Know?’
“(Baby we both know) The nights were mainly made
For saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day.”
Turner is a lyricist who understands the ways of the world and man, and he has the talent to illuminate these home-truths in song and cast them in the golden hue of lustrous wordplay. On any given record that he has been part of, there’s a slew of psychological introspections that prick the ear. Quite often, these shrewd observations are about the relationship between a handheld device and alcohol, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that he’s clearly a man with his finger the pulse.
“The nights were mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day,” is a line that a literary master, like Raymond Chandler, would be delighted to have cast into one of his characters’ mouths in a hardboiled detective novel. It is crisp and concise to a sexy degree, and more importantly, it rings loudly with undeniable truth.
True to the End – ‘The Ultracheese’
“Oh the dawn won’t stop weighing a tonne,
I’ve done some things that I shouldn’t have done,
But I haven’t stopped loving you once.”
In his career thus far, Turner has crammed an extraordinary number of lines into song, each of them with fastidious care and judicious intent (despite the very occasional “its 2013 all across the galaxy” slipping into a B-side.) His prolific lyrical style, however, is not superfluous but rather lean and concise. The vast swathe of lines he has amassed in verse does not amount to dithering in any regard; rather, they single him out as merely busiest bee of the song sheet. He has a lot to say, and he says it unflinchingly and with style to the very end.
Just as any given Arctic Monkey’s record is bookended with two of the album’s best tracks, the first and last lyrics of Tranquillity Base tie the whole thing together with gorgeous symmetry in a sort of journey between two linked ideal’s. The man is aware of many things, and the importance of leaving on a high note is one of them.
His songwriting journey so far has been (inter)stellar, and I’m sure we can’t wait to see where the crooked path leads next.