Alex Turner really divides opinion. For some, he’s one of the UK’s best songwriters, helming The Arctic Monkeys from an early age and seeing them through six studio albums. For others, he’s a prissy, posturing egomaniac who treats live performance as a joke. What can’t be refuted is that his songwriting has always been unique. With his characteristic Sheffield accent, talent for blending disparate styles, and stunning ability to coin a phrase, Turner has come to be regarded as a songwriter like no other.
That songwriting is so unique because Turner has always been something of a sponge, soaking up musical influences from everywhere and anywhere. As a teenager growing up in Sheffield, Turner was a huge hip-hop fan. His first lyrics were inspired by the likes of Roots Manuva, The Streets, Method Man and even Eminem. However, on hearing The Strokes’ first record when he was 15, Turner was so struck by the music that he quickly developed an interest in guitar bands, going so far as to let it inform the way he dressed. At this time, he also started listening to classic artists like The Kinks, Elvis Costello, The Smiths, and Bob Dylan. He began incorporating the peculiarities of these artists’ songwriting into his own process, placing an even greater emphasis on his song’s lyrical content and developing a unique style of song-craft.
On discovering Dylan in particular, Turner found a lyricist who he could relate to. Dylan’s songs are threaded with a strain of yearning. They often start by focusing on the more minor things: small-town issues and small-town characters. But in Dylan’s hands, the stories he tells become universal. Turner’s songwriting functions in much the same way. His earliest songs incorporated images of a grim post-industrial north and made them symbols of something much more expansive.
In a recent article, several notable musicians were asked to talk about what Bob Dylan has meant to them throughout their life. Turner described how Dylan’s songwriting had followed him ever since he was young. Meditating on how his relationship with Dylan changed over the years, Turner said: “I pay quite a lot of attention to songwriters as good as Bob Dylan. In fact, I’ve gone through phases where I’ve listened to his music quite a lot. When I was in New York, I used to listen to Desire quite often, and I really got into that song, ‘One More Cup Of Coffee'”.
It took Turner a little time to really delve into Dylan’s catalogue, but when he did, he never looked back. The Arctic Monkeys singer went on to describe how he’d “never really got into that album (Desire) – years before, I’d listen more to the likes of Highway 61 Revisited or the other early albums, which I’m very familiar with. But that Desire album is something else. But, yeah, a brilliant songwriter, no question.”
The influence of Dylan can be felt especially strongly in Turner’s later work. His work with The Last Shadow Puppets made much use of the Americana style that Dylan’s classic songwriting evokes, and even his more recent tracks with The Arctic Monkey’s seems to honour the oblique and cryptic lyrics of Bob Dylan far more than they used to. In a way, it’s hardly surprising. Dylan’s influence is so all-consuming, so bound up in the fabric of popular music that he’s almost impossible to ignore.