The Last Shadow Puppets (photo: Brittany O’Brien)
When did Alex Turner deviate so far into the beaten path? He flirted on the last Arctic Monkeys album cycle with the slick, snobbish “old school” rock n’ roll stereotype that has defined him since AM became the first “rock” record of middle-schoolers nationwide. And now that initial inclination has developed into a full-grown relationship, but not a healthy one. It’s one that has subsumed him completely into a shadow of what he once resembled. Turner has long worn a variety of faces — the fresh-faced British chap, the acid-dropping stoner poet — but none have felt as insecure as his current iteration: a posturing, detached smirk worn adjacent to his wide-eyed and instinctively off-putting long-outgrown-yet-longtime pal Miles Kane.
With each previous incarnation, Alex Turner’s public image always seemed to shy from the spotlight. He was thoughtful, rarely brash, and generally inward. He let his Arctic Monkeys bandmate Matt Helders do much of the talking in interviews, and wore his latest style not so much with confidence, but rather an easily mistakable apathy towards what anyone else would think. He followed the musical threads he pulled on wherever they led, but never once did it seem like he was trying to be something he wasn’t. Lately, however, it seems as if although Turner is just as uncaring as always, for once he seems to be trying harder than ever to prove that he belongs in the skin he’s found himself in. And it’s looking rather ugly.
The Last Shadow Puppets released their debut album The Age of the Understatement in 2008. Lush, brash, and breezy, the record found friends Turner and Kane swapping sweet come-ons and tangy wordplay over the experienced drumming of James Ford and the string arrangements of Owen Pallett. It was a novel album: At times swinging like a Western and others pleading like a drama. Theatrics defined the album from its cover to its song titles, but Turner’s own impression didn’t veer far off from the Beatles-esque mop he’d adorned over his face for much of that era. At the time, when performing the album live, the duo didn’t do much more than dutifully play their instruments and affectionately sing the words, with the occasional joke casually thrown between the two. The songs were good — their sound confidently composed — the music spoke for itself.
Arriving eight years later with the recently released Everything You’ve Come to Expect, Turner and Kane returned to the same team for the project but didn’t develop nearly as coherent of a mission statement. No initial urgency seemed to inspire the duo; it instead seemed as if though Turner finally found some time off from his arena-packing main gig to help raise the profile of his less-famous pal. Turner is obviously the more talented songwriter of the two — it’s not even close — so much so that at times their relationship can come off as that of a gifted older brother helping his sibling with a grade-school art project. While the first time around saw The Last Shadow Puppets able to blend their respective abilities into a cohesive whole, with Kane stretching impressively to match his songwriting partner, the stitching starts to fray on this new venture. Although the new album holds a diverse sound collage of various styles of influence, it’s the space between those shining moments that end up defining the album. It’s patchy, and the bright spots are all Turner’s.
The same goes for the media build-up prior to the release of Everything You’ve Come to Expect. Kane has very publicly harassed a female journalist and dropped a dud of a late-night performance, meanwhile Turner awkwardly sits back, whether on stage or behind the page, and seems to be unfazed by his partner’s repulsive behavior. He seems mostly removed from the proceedings altogether, even though the project has drawn interest almost entirely due to his involvement. He doesn’t castigate his pal on his rude actions, nor does he stand behind him in support — he basically just ignores it all. It’s this hesitation to either fully endorse or denounce his bandmate that is sinking what has been and would be an otherwise incredibly rewarding enterprise.
Sunday night at The Fillmore saw The Last Shadow Puppets perform for a sold-out crowd between their Coachella stops, draped in their finest suits, which were splayed as causally as possible over their bodies. Waltzing onstage to their nine-piece backing band (notably featuring a string quartet) introducing themselves with the new record’s circular title track, Turner and Kane immediately seemed to be in high spirits. They interact like brothers who happen to be best friends. Trading microphone stands and practically indiscernible banter, the pair come across as jovial, and nearly likable if you squint enough to blur out their pompous costumes and overall aura of vanity.
No matter the ease in which they enjoy one another’s company, however, they gave little indication of any genuine affection for their crowd. Turner especially seemed to be visibly deriding the whole performance from the outset — laying his adopted character on thick in a manner suggesting sarcasm. Consider how Turner approached his early solo spotlight “Sweet Dreams, TN” with a heavy affectation and clumsy body movements far removed from the smooth step of the AM-era Turner. He overexaggerates his personality in an attempt to make light of a situation he doesn’t seem to really want to be in. He’s pretending to be enthused, but his eyes give away just how stale this all is for him. It almost seemed like mockery — as if he’s in on the joke. Maybe it is a joke! I sincerely hope it is. But too bad it’s not a particularly good one.
To Kane’s credit, he fully embraced his persona for the evening — although it came across as in pursuit of proving himself an equal to Turner. He barked at the crowd about “Bad Habits” and displayed many of his own through an overdone rock star ego. Late in the set, during an otherwise enjoyable performance of “In My Room,” Kane knocked down his microphone in a show of alpha-arrogance. It was an unsavory move to the venue and emblematic of the kind of stereotypes of “cool” Kane employs as his means of showmanship. Where Turner seems to be playing with these notions in his jaunty and self-aware motions, it seems Kane fully believes that these displays of masculine “rebellion” are truly self-mythologizing steps.
The reproachful identities the two men have claimed as their own are particularly unfortunate, because beyond them lie a truly accomplished band composing great work. Many fans in the audience had likely missed the band during their one previous tour of the States nearly a decade ago, and it was apparent from the wild cheering that greeted the opening notes of “The Meeting Place” and “My Mistakes Were Made For You” that this show was a dream a long in the making. But while first album highlights were the most well-received by the crowd, the new album held its own and was responsible for many of the best moments of the night. “Dracula Teeth” came only four songs in, but may have been the peak of the whole set, with cinematic language and an evocative mood that translated as beautiful and boisterous live. On the other end of the performance, “The Dream Synopsis” proved Turner’s biggest triumph, with a romp and a beating heart that would fit naturally on his excellent solo soundtrack for the film Submarine.
It was during those moments when the two allowed one another a personal showcase that their disparity in quality was clearly on display. “Used to Be My Girl” began with a Kane verse that quickly lost the attention of the audience, before Turner jumped in for his part and lifted the energy up. While Kane overcompensated for an underwhelming song such as “Bad Habits” with intense, yet poorly executed screaming, Turner eased effortlessly into “Miracle Aligner” and sold it to the crowd, hardly raising his voice.
For what it’s worth, Kane seems to be taking an immense amount of pride in this project. If he’s looked at like the little brother in the group, at least he’s Alex Turner’s little brother — an association that only justifies his self-proclaimed significance. He’s really working up there on the stage — while his yowling may come off as sour on a musical level, it at least proved how much effort he was putting into it. You can’t say much for Turner in that same regard. He sang his words disconnected in a way as if he hadn’t been the one to write them — as if he was dramatically imitating himself. Between songs wasn’t much better, during which Turner would stumble through awkward banter in his heavy Sheffield accent, speaking with a dazed showmanship resembling De Niro at the end of Raging Bull. Like De Niro in the film, Turner looked a little more fleshed-out than he was at his prime, and acts a little bit off-color.
These moments beyond the music seemed to be more performative than the rest of the actual concert. And maybe that’s not by accident. Turner could be using Kane as a vehicle to play dress-up as a greaser-resembling sleaze symbol. It’s an interesting character, if to be appreciated for the detail more so than the concept. Art exists as an avenue to explore new spaces, so why can’t Turner vary his approach, as he has done in the past, to see what he can dig out of this association? It’s a fair argument — but where AM-era Turner shared a similar lifeblood and mystique to this avatar’s mannerisms and overall look, at least that Turner seemed committed to the record. Turner holds no stakes in The Last Shadow Puppets; he seems bored and uninspired. It’s fine if Turner wants to channel his music through such a demoralizing character, but you would hope he’d at least give you some justification for why it needs to exist.