The Last Shadow Puppets The Age of the Understatement

[Domino; 2008]

Styles: hyperbole-imbued rock
Others: Arctic Monkeys, The Rascals, Simian Mobile Disco, London Metropolitan Orchestra

If any musician understands the age of artistic expression in which we currently reside, it's Alex Turner. As frontman for prominent, British post-punk outfit, Arctic Monkeys, Turner has become all too accustomed with hyperbole. Musicians exuding even a modicum of imaginative flair and facility while displaying an ability to ship product are never simply described as adroit or popular; instead, they are aggrandized as the “biggest” and “best” since the phonograph was invented and are promptly bombarded with countless gleaming accolades, however slight or inconsequential. For the culture industry must apotheosize in order to attract the mercurial consumer. Thus goes the story of the genuinely gifted Arctic Monkeys, who were described as the “Biggest New Band Since Oasis,” and whose debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006), was the highest selling debut album in the history of British music, even winning the prestigious Mercury Prize. Of course, Leona Lewis’s album, Spirit, broke Arctic Monkeys’ record since then and their sophomore effort, Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007), sold 100,000 fewer copies, on top of failing to win the Mercury Prize.

So, how does the modern musician survive the looming letdown when they become old-hat and the next guitar-toting fresh-face becomes even “bigger” and “better”? If the history of the rock ‘n’ roll icon is any hint: possessing irony in spades is a necessity. Dylan, Lennon, Morrisey, and Yorke never believed the hype generated by tastemakers, and Turner comes across, in his interviews and music, as a member of that rare breed of artist. Through paradoxical musical choices, Turner has refused to be mythologized by hyperbole, whether by releasing un-hooky singles (“Brianstorm”) or forming side project The Last Shadow Puppets with longtime friend and Rascals frontman Miles Kane, half of Simian Mobile Disco, producer James Ford (Favourite Worst Nightmare), and the 22-piece London Metropolitan Orchestra. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Turner certainly had his tongue inserted firmly in cheek when he titled the group’s first album The Age of the Understatement. Rather, The Age of the Understatement stands as a paradigm of the age of the overstatement.

The eponymous first single establishes this trope of hyperbole immediately. Echoing most lucidly the bombastic grandeur of Muse’s song, “Knights of Cydonia,” there is certainly nothing understated about the swelling strings and galloping, driving beat. Where Arctic Monkeys are concerned with small moments in ordinary lives captured with a precocious, poignant eye, The Last Shadow Puppets are concerned with deeper moments and extraordinary lives captured with cacophonous, colorful cinemascope. From the forceful horns on “Calm Like You” and screeching violins on “In My Room,” to the ominous bells on “Separate And Ever Deadly” and placid strings on “Meeting Place,” the album never stops feeling like a great score. Equal parts 007-intrigue and spaghetti western-histrionics, this is music at its most cinematic.

Turner does his best to keep up with these sumptuous orchestrations and immense arrangements that pervade the sonic backdrop. His acute character sketches of late-teens experiencing the ubiquity of suburbia, found on the two Arctic Monkeys albums, now often give way to larger-than-life characters experiencing whirlwind lives. On The Age of the Understatement, Turner’s preferred character is the femme fatale, who imbues the album’s quieter moments with those same feelings of exaggeration. The men are stripped of their agency becoming ensnared by the sinister, dodgy woman in their lives, as on “Calm Like You” the man is “locked up inside of [her] loops.” But these women are not safe from their own treachery, as on “The Chamber” a femme fatale becomes “locked inside [her own] chamber” of instigating arguments. Without captivating stories, the cinematic music could have been miscast, but Turner’s intriguing lyrics compliment the sonic landscape nicely.

By continually maturing and re-inventing, Turner’s music has been able to avoid becoming indurate, which has plagued many previous culture industry-created fresh faces. Just as the culture industry is looking for the next big thing, the media and public are continually looking for the next big bust. So, living in an age of hyperbole, Turner is trying to avoid the great fall the only way he knows how: irony. If The Age of the Understatement is any indication, his heroes taught him well.

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