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When Did the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner Start Trying to Be Cool?

And why does it even matter?

(Sam Taylor Illustration)
(Sam Taylor Illustration)

This week, The Ringer is taking time to travel all the way back to … last year. Or a few months ago. We’re diving into the not-so-distant past to check up on what happened to that one lady, or to track the rise of an online social movement. Welcome to Recent History Week, where we’ll explore events you may have forgotten about and remind you why they still matter.

The Arctic Monkeys are maybe, possibly making headway on their first album in four years, and I’ve been wondering a lot about when exactly Alex Turner decided he wanted to be cool. It’s not the easiest question to answer, but we may as well start somewhere close-ish to the beginning, with the best Arctic Monkeys song, which is “Do Me a Favour.”

I want you to promise me you won’t take that statement too seriously because I don’t; they’re all the best Arctic Monkeys song at one point or another. “Fluorescent Adolescent” sounded particularly good when I turned 20 and panicked that life had become irreversibly more real than it had been before the stroke of midnight. “Riot Van” was best when run-ins with the law were staked to bored campus police threatening to escort you to actual officers because throwing a watery beer into a nearby bush wasn’t the same thing as making it disappear. “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” might be their most important; mushy and geeky and self-explanatory, it was the springboard for the Yorkshire band’s eventual success. “A Certain Romance” — the closer to their record-breaking debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not — probably says the most about them. It’s a bratty number about how ridiculous people look in Reeboks and obviously counterfeit Burberry, but really it’s about how you’re received by others being somewhat beyond your control, a problem personal to whomever is doing the receiving.

I first got into the Arctic Monkeys because they were singing about getting carded well past reaching drinking age and being serially curved by women both in and out of their league. Their early records were music for young people frustrated by the inconveniences of being young, or for anyone who was misunderstood but couldn’t be bothered to explain themselves. They were uncool, which made them cool.

They’ve enjoyed an obscene amount of success in the intervening time, but some of that initial appeal, at least to me, was lost along the way. That’s what happens when the totem for your interminably awkward years opts, sometime in 2013, to become a rock god. Then again, it’s easy to forget that refinement and reinvention aren’t unique to your favorite band, and that your pangs of abandonment are ordinary.

But let’s talk about the name “Arctic Monkeys” for a second. It’s just sort of there, daring you to attempt to unpack it. There’s no sense of the four-part outfit’s identity to be drawn from an insular name like “Arctic Monkeys,” beyond that they probably wash their food before eating it and that they could entertain themselves for hours rolling up snowballs they don’t plan on throwing.

It’s a joke so far inside that it barely means anything, even to the people who told it in the first place: Guitarist Jamie Cook picked the name and still hasn’t told anyone why he chose it, 14 years later. Another fun fact about the Arctic Monkeys: Lead singer Alex Turner was interested in neither leading nor singing at first, content to play the guitar and cede the mic to a classmate of his at Sheffield’s Stocksbridge High, Glyn Jones. I think about that when I watch him perform “Do Me a Favour,” which is, again, their best song, at the Apollo (the one in Manchester, not the one in New York) in 2007.

Turner was still feeling around for the bottom of his vocal range at the end of the band’s first world tour, in support of their sophomore album, Favourite Worst Nightmare. And by this point in the set list, he’d already shed the thick, white (and probably pretty hot) sweater he was wearing over his least-rumpled black polo, but he still looked uncomfortable. Of course, that assumption is almost entirely based on Turner fussing with his stringy mod haircut during song breaks. And also his eyes clinging to the bridge of his guitar as he sang in his endearingly snotty accent about his dedication to finding rock bottom and drilling through it.

In the song, things are simple at first sight: He met her at the pub, he lost her at the pub, he’d drown his sorrows at the pub, whatever. But the mounting, frantic energy of the tune tells a more realized story about self-sabotage. It builds to a head around two and a half minutes in, when Turner lets loose a blast of visceral frustration, thrashing against the lonely agony of having only himself to blame. It was freaky, vulnerable, and urgent in a believable way. Probably because it was all happening then and there.

When he performed that same song at Glastonbury in 2013, it was different. Because Alex Turner was different. Seven years removed from poking fun at try-hard cool bands with plastic personalities on “Fake Tales of San Francisco” (“You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham”), he tamed his mop into a pompadour and was decked out head-to-toe in Saint Laurent. He was also splitting his time between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, dating Alexa Chung — writer, model, and designer (equal parts high cheekbones, dimples, and Valencia filter).

None of this is actively bad, by the way. Much in the same way that you drink a lot for the privilege of making questionable decisions, if you make music diligently and you’re given the opportunity, you’re allowed to become rich and a sex symbol who dates models; so few people get to. What I mean to say is — and it feels required to remind you here that I was watching from a desk chair and not a knoll in southwest England — that I couldn’t read the same things onto Turner’s performance that I had before. And though it’s poor form to switch points of reference this late in an observation, “505” from this set better illustrates how far this Alex Turner was from the Alex Turner of the first two albums.

There is no way to watch this without acknowledging how much cooler Alex Turner is than Alex Turner. The croon is more capably described as “wasted” than “weary” now, his voice lower and more swaggering at the expense of some emotional depth. (“I crumble completely when you cry” felt like a glancing blow instead of a through-and-through, you know?) But I assume that’s a hand-rolled cigarette. And when he holds his arms out to steady himself on the center stage amp, that’s when it’s easiest to imagine the tassels dangling off his sleeves. Why were there no actual tassels? Anyway, a fair amount of stuff happened after the Apollo.

Half of the reason the Arctic Monkeys’ third album, 2009’s Humbug, didn’t feel as frenzied or head-first as Favourite Worst Nightmare has to do with time. Doing a thing very publicly fairly regularly tends to sharpen your ability to do that thing. Doing said thing for long enough tends to wear out the novelty of it.

There was also the wrinkle of where Turner wanted to go next creatively and who helped him get there. The band had done baggy britpop and then jittery post-punk. To move on to doomed stoner rock, they retained the producer-collaborator services of Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, who also smokes on stage. There’s a whole Tumblr dedicated to it. Turner’s hair was impossible and shaggy and perfect. And, to go along with his changing fashions, his voice was now dreamier and smoother around the edges, a little further away.

A list of some artists Turner was listening to around this time: the Stooges, Black Sabbath, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Nick Cave, Nick Lowe, the Byrds. It made perfect sense that 2011’s Suck It and See felt dustier and vaguely Bad Seeds–y, like a melting sepia-toned photo. It’s an entire album happening between high noon and dusk. There’s no song on Suck It that I haven’t at least grown to like.

2013’s AM is some of their most joyless, paranoiac work, which also means that it’s their blackest in two ways. [High fives self.] Turner told NME before the release that he’d aimed to make the album sound less like “four lads playing in a room,” and more like something that would sound “boss in your car,” like Dr. Dre. The music sounded like R&B with guitar solos, and Turner himself sounded, at least in public, like a drunk (or high!) rhinestone cowboy. Here he is at the 2014 BRIT Awards, hamming it up and right through the glass ceiling.

There’s so much going on here that at least part of it has to be a joke. “That rock ’n’ roll, eh?” is an inherently absurd thing to say, even while at an awards show. Noisey writer Dan Wilkinson described Turner’s new way of speaking as “Sean Bean doing a Bill Clinton impression at gunpoint first thing in the morning.” Wilkinson also spoke to British voice and accent specialist Marina Tyndall, who seemed to think that we’re not experiencing a change more sinister than it is natural:

AM was the band’s fifth straight U.K. no. 1. It also sold more in the U.S. than the three previous albums combined, and owed as much to Chronic 2001 as it does to Songs for the Deaf. Ditto for N.E.R.D and David Bowie, the latter of whom knew better than most that reinvention was both inevitable and necessary. In the three years following 1977, the Clash were at least three different bands, starting at ground-zero punk with their self-titled debut and landing somewhere in the vicinity of New York’s budding hip-hop scene in 1980 with Sandinista!. Lana Del Rey wears flower crowns now. The Weeknd wants to be Michael Jackson.

Tyndall finishes that interview by suggesting that introverts — of which Turner is one — are “even more likely to adopt subconscious strategies for blending into the background.” I, neither a linguist nor a psychoanalyst, can’t make those kinds of leaps. But imagine that, the spindly, jaded teenager from Sheffield growing up to discover that being cool is way better than being sad.