Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys is famous for playing glorious games with the English language. If you’re covering an Arctic Monkeys’ song, make sure you know which words carry double meanings, so that you put emphasis in the right places.
Think of Piledriver Waltz: Alex uses misdirection to set up expectation. He places you in the back booth of a run-down hotel: By the pamphlets and the literature/On how to lose … What’s the next word? I bet you guessed weight. And Alex gives you the word you’re expecting, or at least its sound. Then he has fun:
Waitress appears like a hedgehog out of a conjurer’s hat. We’re expecting the standard rabbit of weight. And we love the switch. We love being tricked when it’s done with skill and when we lose nothing. The song goes on, we smile and listen with even more attention. Expecting more fun.
If you’re singing Piledriver Waltz, make sure you sing the words clearly enough for your audience to relish the pleasure of the wordplay. Be kind.
Lines like: If you’re gonna try and walk on water /Make sure you wear your comfortable shoes deserve to be enjoyed. Don’t waste them, but don’t overplay them either. Don’t throw knowing looks at your audience or emphasise the ‘clever’ words. Their joy lies in their insouciance. Their fun dies if it’s too obvious.
Alex, as the songwriter and chief wordsmith, is nonchalant with his own word frolics. It would sound horribly arrogant if he kept directing your attention to his cleverness. Though, to be fair, he does want you to notice and enjoy his weight/waitress joke. He sings the word lit-e-ra-ture with an unusual delight in each syllable. That makes you pay attention. Ready for the reveal.
If you’re singing a cover of Piledriver Waltz and especially if English isn’t your first language check, check and check the lyrics again. If you’ve never heard a Sheffield accent before, make sure it’s not leading you astray. The words are well-crafted things, so build your cover version on Alex’s reality.
It’s not always easy to catch every word by listening alone because Alex tends to bend them, expand them or slide over them. Don’t just mimic him, unless you know exactly what’s underneath each slide, inside each expansion and beside each bend.
Be sure to have Alex Turner’s voice playing while you read the lyrics. You’re reading them to understand where each word begins and ends. You’re not trying to understand them or to translate them. They’re untranslatable.
The meaning of the words is elusive, surreal and poetic. Have you ever seen anyone etch the face of a stopwatch onto the back of a raindrop? I haven’t. But the sound of the words and the feel of the music paint a vivid picture in my head.
That’s what you’re after – weaving the words and the music together to build a feeling. If you’re sure of your words, your audience can enjoy that feeling with you.
If English isn’t your first language: one word of warning – be careful with the classic English the in the chorus of Piledriver Waltz. It might not be the the that you learnt in English class.
Alex uses the English the with an English schwa. That’s important. If you sing the as if it rhymed with bee, you’re making a mistake and you’ll upset the song. The with a schwa sways easily up into heartbreak hotel without missing a beat.
The without a schwa (sounding like thee) stands up tall and can’t blend forward into heartbreak. It breaks the careful rhythm of the chorus. If you sing the as thee, you’ll have to stop to rearrange your mouth before you can shape the h of the word heartbreak. It’s something to think about.
Piledriver Waltz depends on English schwa sounds. When you sing it, make sure that each a, of, for was, the has a schwa. They need it if they’re going to work. The er of amber and answer are schwa sounds. The fast of breakfast is a schwa sound. They’re everywhere!
Remember – Alex has every single last word of Piledriver Waltz clear in his own head when he sings. He forms each one as he chooses, but he forms them. He wrote the words, so they’re his to play with as he will. If you’re going to play, make sure you have all the right pieces.
When you watch him singing, you can see him giving each word plenty of room and time in his mouth. The circling, swaying motion of the song depends on it.
Take your time and enjoy yourself. It’s a waltz, after all.
© Sing Better English, 2015