There’s no denying that poetry is one of the oldest forms of writing that we mere mortals have fleshed out onto whatever stone tablet or papyrus leaf or iPad may have been convenient to us at the time. Whether as a form of tribute, social critique, or emotional outlet, poetry has for many eons been an impressively telling pulse check on where our minds and hearts are wandering in a certain decade or century. And yet, here we stand, in what may or may not be our last year ever, and poetry is largely regarded as a thing of the past. I wonder how many of us could name the last great American poet. Off the top of my head, maybe Frost? Or Plath? Or dare I say Billy Collins?
So where has the poetry gone? Where is Whitman’s ever-youthful “barbaric YAWP?” Is this to say that we of the web generation no longer even have a poetic pulse, that our minds have been reduced to trains of thought no longer than 140 characters? In the following words, I’ll offer what I pray is a glimmer of hope to you blessed readers. It appears to me that our poetic souls have harkened back to their roots. That is, in music and song.
But in a musical world that reminds us that we “gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs,” is there any place for the lost poetic soul of Y2K to find refuge? Yes, dear reader, yes. In my mind, rock & roll and rap have served as mainstays for the poetic soul to tap into the public stream of consciousness. In the latter category, one must proceed with caution. I suggest beginning with Nas’ Illmatic. Even in rock & roll, we are hard pressed to find a songwriter, a poet, who has not pigeonholed himself or herself into a songwriting niche such as to never get out and see what life actually has to offer our souls. Is there any place where we might find a lyricist who has dipped his pen into every shade of ink that life as a member of the web generation has to offer? One whose experience successfully incorporates almost every square inch of the psychological map that our young brains spill themselves out upon? I offer you such a figure in the form of Alex Turner, the front man and songwriter for the British rock four-piece Arctic Monkeys.
Turner, in a mere seven-year, four-album career thus far with Arctic Monkeys, has managed to poetically provide the framework for the sort of rite of passage that young people face in a modern context. His poignant lyricism has given words to all the various vents, observations, and frustrations, that everyone—and I mean literally everyone—experiences. And I’m not speaking of the mere punk rock, emo, complain-my-whining-heart-out kind of “poetry” we got with Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco. No, Turner’s body of work represents something far greater than that, something far more encompassing and understanding of the matter, rife with all sorts of human emotions that resonate on many levels.
It is important to note that Arctic Monkeys are a product of the web generation. After all, they got famous by releasing all their music for free online before the record labels came running to them and kissing their feet. They set the precedent that many bands today follow of uploading all your music for free. To some degree, they represent the very essence of the music scene in the past decade or so. Also important to note is the fact that Alex Turner himself makes no claims of messianic songwriting capability, as if to say that anonymity is such a valuable, crucial thing to a society confined to the World Wide Web, and who is he to step out into the spotlight? If we look at Turner’s lyricism, as I will present in four phases mirroring each of Arctic Monkeys’ albums, we see that in this group, and especially in this songwriter, we will find that there is a poetic soul still out there to be found in our generation, one that transcends Facebook statuses and hashtagged tweets.
Phase One: Sketches of Adolescence. “Anticipation has a habit to set you up/ For disappointment in evening entertainment but/ Tonight there’ll be some love” declares Turner in “The View From The Afternoon,” the opening track on Arctic Monkeys’ debut album Whatever People Say That I Am, That’s What I’m Not. In a quickly spat-out sentence, Turner has taken on any sort of presupposition about adolescence, about night-life, even about love that our poor young souls combat in the supposed halcyon days of youth. Turner, who opted to pursue his music career instead of college, has firsthand experiences of what it means to be lost in a world of sexual façade and frustration, and he’s just as frustrated as any other struggling young man. With the crude underbelly of Sheffield, England nightlife as his setting, Turner goes about pinpointing those infuriating social standards with the cleverly ironic hand tool of a blunt razor-sharp wit. His is an interesting brew of critique, managing to go after individuals as well as the social standard in general, all while leaving some room for a bit of self-aware critique of the narrator. Take their B-Side “Bigger Boys And Stolen Sweethearts,” which opens with Turner, at his most singsong, crooning, “There’s always somebody taller/ With more of a wit/ And he’s equipped to enthrall her/ And her friends think he’s fit/ And you just can’t measure up no/ You don’t have a prayer/ Wishing you had made the most of her/ When she was there.” But to make sure that the blame gets spread around fully, Turner goes on about this former love interest, “She’s not nice/ She’s pretty fucking far from nice/ She’s looking at you funny/ Rarely looking at you nice.” He even goes as far to shake the lovesick young man into a reality check as he sings, “You said you wasn’t sad to see her go/ But I know you were, though.” In a mere few verses, Turner has pointed the gun at all parties involved, as if to say no one is safe from the bloodbath that is growing up.
This first phase of Turner’s poetic journey through the young human soul begins in its naturally nascent phases. A young man, somewhat unsure of his footing but definitely sure of the unfairness that sums up adolescence in general, goes about pointing out the pitfalls of adolescent life. One can imagine him standing in the corner of a party, perhaps with red Solo cup in hand, taking in all his surroundings and crafting up little quips about each member of the party to beat out in a punk melody later on. In “Still Take You Home,” he tackles that desperately fake babe, singing, “Well It’s ever so funny/ Cos I don’t think you’re special I don’t think you’re cool/ You’re just probably alright/ But under these lights you look beautiful/ And I’m struggling/ I can’t see through your fake tan/ Oh yeah know it for a fact that everybody’s eating outta your hands.” Then he goes after all those doting on the hot girl, including himself, in “You Probably Couldn’t See For The Lights But You Were Staring Straight At Me”: “Everybody’s trying to crack the jokes and that to make you smile/ Those that claim that they’re not showing off are drowning in denial/ But they’re not half as bad as me, say anything and I’ll agree/ Cause when it comes to acting up, I’m sure I could write the book.” The examples go on and on, as Turner recounts with experienced dexterity various run-ins with the police (“Riot Van”), scraps with bar bouncers (“From The Ritz To The Rubble”), and even the chilly truth of a life of prostitution (“When The Sun Goes Down”). By the time the album wraps up with the gorgeous, climactic “A Certain Romance,” the listener, who has become engaged with the lyrics as a reflection of one’s own experience, sees Turner yearning for something a little bit more than just the painfully adolescent one night stand. The word “romance” gets introduced for the first time as Turner wistfully croons, “And there’s the truth that they can’t see/ They’d probably like to throw a punch at me/ And if you could only see them, then you would agree/ Agree that there ain’t no romance around there.” Arctic Monkeys always end their albums on a high note, albeit a somewhat nostalgic, even sorrowful one, as if to point to the end of an era, and the beginning of the next phase.
Phase Two: Turner as the Hopeless Romantic. Arctic Monkeys’ second album, Favourite Worst Nightmare, is exactly that. Turner the poet has moved on from the superficial flings of the youthful nightlife, moving on to more noble ventures, namely those of true love and romance. But, as the album title suggests, this pursuit is one of the most pleasantly tempting kind of tortures. The album opens up with “Brianstorm,” a fierce, chugging rocker rife with lyrical dregs from the previous album. A sort of rude awakening, this songs suggests Turner’s realization that the real world of romance might not be quite as great as he first thought: “Some want to kiss some want to kick you/ There’s not a net you couldn’t slip through/ Or at least that’s the impression I get cause you’re smooth and you’re wet/ And she’s not aware yet but she’s yours.”
Like just about anyone slogging through the treacherous waters of youth, one tends to seek out the genuine, the sincere, and yes, the romantic after becoming fed up with the triviality that was the former phase of life. And that’s exactly what Turner does in the lyrics of Favourite Worst Nightmare. But, as the formula suggests, the reality is not exactly what one expects. Turner takes a pretty cynical turn down the path of the hopeless romantic. Not only are his sentiments in keeping with the human experience, but his writing is on par as well. As he matures, his writing becomes more sophisticated, both summoning brilliantly-placed metaphors while still exuding this air of confusion, as if he may never actually know the truth. The music, too, takes on a more somber, melancholy air, a departure from the brute force-style punk rock of the first album. Certainly songs like “Only Ones Who Know,” a slowed down, pensive number capture Turner’s new outlook very well, as he solemnly sings, “And I bet she told a million people that she’d stay in touch/ But all the little promises, they don’t mean much/ When there’s memories to be made/ And I hope you’re holding hands by New Year’s Eve/ They’ve made it far too easy to believe/ That true romance can’t be achieved these days.”
Turner’s lyrics on Favourite Worst Nightmare adopt the lens of a young man in a one-on-one situation with some sort of significant other. This hopeless romantic finds himself in too many tough situations with not enough answers as to how he might make it better: “Do me a favour and ask if you need some help/ She said ‘do me a favour and stop flattering yourself’” (“Do Me A Favour”). At some point in his quest, Turner’s romantic lashes out, throwing himself back into the den of lions yet still finding no lasting satisfaction. In “This House Is A Circus,” Turner declares, “We’re forever unfulfilled/ And can’t think why/ Like a search for murder clues/ In dead men’s eyes.” This song represents a seminal moment in Turner’s songwriting consciousness as it reflects on the greater self-awareness of web generation listeners. That is to say, Turner, like so many of us, has jumped headlong into the deep end of the young romantic mind and found little more than what disgusted him in the first phase of his poetic journey. This heightened sense of romantic lust leads to perhaps a deeper sense of disappointment, but it is still nonetheless the same disappointment to be found in any other walk of life. Here the listener might take note, that no matter which phase of life you are in, you’re bound to face disappointment. Turner presents such emotion with a fresh perspective, as if no one had ever put such clear words to what is going on in the recesses of our mind. “Circus” flows without pause into “If You Were There, Beware,” in which Turner both prophetically and perhaps regretfully claims, “If I’d have known then I wouldn’t have said it/ I wouldn’t have said it if I would have known.” And now there is a sense of nostalgic loss, a loss of innocence in which Turner might be yearning for those more innocent days in the first phase. Nowhere is such wistfulness expressed better than in Arctic Monkeys’ smash hit “Fluorescent Adolescent,” in which Turner sings, “Nothing seems as pretty as the past though… remember when you used to be a rascal?”
Turner’s nostalgic crooning soon gives way to disenchantment, though, as Favourite Worst Nightmare ends yet again climatically with “505.” Turner’s poor narrator cannot catch a break in his romantic endeavors, and it results in a sort of disillusionment that may have disastrous repercussions: “I crumble completely when you cry/ It seems that once again you’ve had to greet me with ‘goodbye’/ I’m always just about to go and spoil the surprise/ Take my hands off of your eyes too soon.” As his hopeless romantic phase comes to an end, one gets the sense that the poet may be leaving for good, a self exile that will take the mind to a strange place full of unexplored territory.
Phase Three: Things Get Weird. In which Alex Turner takes his band out to the desert, grows out his hair nice and long, and trips out of his mind. Arctic Monkeys’ third album Humbug, a nine-track sort of experimentation produced by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, is, to put it bluntly, kind of weird. Many songs feature a creepy horror movie organ, the guitar tones get trippy and wailing, and, most importantly, Turner’s lyricism is at its strangest and most obscure. But one gets the sense upon multiple listens that this isn’t just a lost songwriter throwing magnetic words onto the fridge. Turner’s exile is self imposed and consciously done. There is a surprising amount of clarity in Turner’s lyrics, as the listener feels that Turner is sort of pushing away, letting himself fall into his own deep end to see what he might find. In the opening track “My Propeller,” he sings, “You’ve got to make your descent slowly.” The poet grapples with himself and with his relation to others, asking questions that we young people of the web generation often struggle to put words to. In the bizarre “Dangerous Animals,” Turner suggests that his introspection has just as much to do with others as it does with himself: “I’m fighting with my sheets/ And nearly crying in my sleep… and you press it my chest and you make me wheeze/ Then to my knees you do promote me.”
There’s an element of darkness to Turner’s lyricism, but he and the rest of his band embrace it wholeheartedly. See such songs as “Dance Little Liar,” in which Turner coyly sings, “I hear the truth is built to bend.” Perhaps what Turner suggests in his embrace of the darkness that it’s the only place a young person can find truth, even if it’s in the dark recesses of his mind. In “Secret Door,” one of the album’s highlights, the chorus proceeds, “Fools on parade cavort and carry on/ See waiting eyes/ That you would rather be beside than in front of.” Turner adds in a later verse, “How could such a creature survive in such a habitat?” It is important to note, however, that despite this sort of fierce, dark self-exile, Turner is not by any means declaring independence from the world or from those around him. On the contrary, the album’s best song, “Cornerstone,” is about the first person narrator struggling to get over a lost love, so he settles for her sister. There is a touch of self-deprecating humor, of dependence, and still a yearning for love, a desire perhaps never properly filled in this web-based life. On Humbug’s final track, “The Jeweller’s Hands,” Turner makes one final call for help, as if he might try to return from the desert: “If you’ve a lesson to teach me, I’m listening/ Ready to learn/ With no one there to police me, I’m sinking in/ Till no return.” This foreboding, open-ended farewell, leaves the listener wondering, is there any hope of surviving is this bloodbath that is the web generation without completely losing oneself?
Phase Four: It’s gonna be okay. “I took the batteries out of my mysticism/ And put them in my thinking cap,” sings Turner on “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala,” a dazzling single off Arctic Monkeys’ 2011 album Suck It And See. This album presents to the listener a very interesting question due to the fact that it is not nearly as conceptual—or at least not obviously so—as the previous albums. Turner rolls many themes into one group of twelve songs, whereas he might have spent an entire album earlier in his career. So the poetic soul wonders: where does that leave us? Has Turner given us a definitive answer or response to these questions that he has been asking on our behalf for the past three albums? The answer isn’t so simple. But at the very least we can take solace in the fact that this poet has emerged from the depths and appears to be okay. He cut his hair and appeared to have emerged from the depths. And Turner’s lyrics on Suck It And See run the whole spectrum of topics he’d covered before. There’s the lovesick romantic struggling with the love of a woman, as seen in the opener “She’s Thunderstorms” and later on B-Side “Evil Twin.” There’s the nostalgic sense of loss conveyed in “Love Is A Laserquest” and the lovely “Piledriver Waltz.” There’s even room for the obscure mind-trip lyrics in such tunes as “Don’t Sit Down Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” and “Library Pictures,” which leaves the listener asking what on earth it means to go “riding through the thunder suckle fuzz canyon.” Even better to see for the listener is the fact that much of Turner’s lyrics in this album are those of love in its simplest, most elemental form, with no complications or dualities in sight. Sometimes he’s incredibly blunt, as on “Brick By Brick,” when he sings flatly, “I wanna feel your love/ Brick by brick.” There are traces of every bit of Turner’s experience all thrown in to one album, and he’s emerged to tell the tale.
Lyrically, Turner is on top of his game here, whipping out some of his best metaphors and imagery and one-offs to date (see such top-rate tunes as “Black Treacle,” “Reckless Serenade,” and “That’s Where You’re Wrong”). There is indeed a sense of maturity here not to be found in some of his other attempts, as if he’s gone to hell and back, and, knowing what it’s like down there, prefers to stay in the sun. Here is a man who knows what he loves, and loves what he knows, and his poetic soul now encapsulates the breadth of the young person’s experience in this ever turbulent web generation.
Let Turner’s guidance be reassurance that we have no cause to fear what lies ahead. It seems with his lyrical journey that the best is yet to come. The poetry of the soul lives free, no matter where on the road you find yourself. Fight on, brave poet. Fight on.