Arctic Monkeys ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ – Review

14 May

‘I just wanted to be one of the strokes, now look what you made me do.’ As opening lines go, that one’s a dozy and worth the admission price alone. More importantly though, the sentiment re-grounds Arctic Monkeys in a rock n roll lineage, and reminds the listener just where the band started and therefore how far they’ve travelled. From mop-top teens with guitars to the sleekest and biggest rock band in the country. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ is an album, essentially, all about distances – between the past and present, reality and fantasy, the earth and moon, our finger tips and touchscreens. What about the distance from ‘Whatever People Say I am, that’s what I’m not’ to this, very complex, very odd, very ambitious new album? Arctic Monkeys are quite comfortably the band of my generation; the only ones who truly transcended a classic debut album and have carved out a career that matches artistic daring with commercial success. Few young rock bands sell out stadiums and headline pop festivals, but even the handful that do (Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire, The Killers, Kasabian) have struggled to keep their credibility fully in tact in the process. Arctic Monkeys achievements therefore cannot be understated.

Nor can the bravery it takes to deliberately undermine that success in the name of artistic endeavour. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ is as singular and uncompromising as that title suggests it might be. It’s a world away from the jagged indie of 2006 and the cocksure pop-rock of 2013. It’s also a world away in the sense that the album imagines a future society, living and loving in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Hotel resort on the moon. Alex Turner’s impulsive, scatterbrained style prevents this from being a proper concept album but in its thematic and aesthetic cohesion it certainly feels like one. Moving away from the romantic lyricism of ‘Suck It and See’ and ‘AM’ towards a piercing type of social commentary, it’s almost a return to the bluntness and dark humour that defined their early material.

The album starts with the somewhat jazzy ‘Star Treatment’. It reads like a dissection of the slightly vulgar persona Turner adopted for the Last Shadow Puppets most recent tour. ‘Karate bandana. Warp speed chic. Hair down to there.’ In a recent interview with Annie Mac he blushed when reminded of the Karate moves he pulled on stage at Radio 1’s big weekend (later on during ‘She Looks Like Fun’ he notes to self ‘I need to spend less time in bars waffling on to strangers all about martial arts’). ‘Star Treatment’ is too delightedly giddy when describing this ‘golden boy’ to be considered a complete rejection but when Alex sings ‘back down to earth with a lounge singer shimmer’, we can perhaps accept this as a slight admission of regret and a deceleration of a more down to earth perspective.

It holds for much of the album’s running time but occasionally Turner seems to delight in toxic role play. Politics comes in to the conversation from time to time, mainly as a bedrock of disparagement and disbelief. The louche, lounge singer type personified and then popped on ‘Star Treatment’ returns at the start of ‘One Point Perspective’ to announce: ‘dancing in my underpants, I’m gonna run for government. I’m gonna form a covers band.’ Of course politics has become so debased that the situation doesn’t sound that far fetched. Perhaps Turner was thinking of the same character who later on is ‘leader of the free world’ and ‘reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks.’ It’s no wonder the ‘shining city is on the fritz’ if these are the people in charge.

Once the modern fantasy is revealed as a sham, a futuristic alternative is imagined – on the moon. In this post apocalyptic vision, vacuous pop culture figures mix with ‘Jesus in the day spa’, prophets lose their train of thought, protesters get their hair done before ‘popping out to sing a protest song’, technological advances get you in the mood, and God can be contacted on video call. Its a surreal vision of a technologically obsessed future that is not dissimilar from our own. It’s no wonder he asks, at the start of ‘American Sports’, ‘when you gaze at planet earth from outer space, does it wipe that stupid smile off your face?’ This is often a bleak, and bleakly hilarious, vision of a future society that feels a little too close to home.

This critique is soundtracked by music that is itself a kind of odd, futuristic fever dream of past influences, rendered in vivid new colours. It’s where the dark psych-rock of Humbug, the silky strut of ‘AM’ and the sleazy chamber pop of ‘Everything You’ve Come to Expect’ melt in to something totally unrecognisable to all but the few paying extra close attention. It’s a sound that is almost without precedent but at points recalls the abstract absurdity of ‘Smile’ mixed with the luscious musical flourishes of ‘Pet Sounds or the sleazy glamour of ‘Historie de Nelson’ with the dark detailing of ‘Tender Prey’. The last time a stadium sized band took a risk on this scale was Radiohead with ‘Kid A’ nearly twenty years ago, and even then the stakes weren’t this high. Arctic Monkeys are currently the biggest band in the country at a time when Rock stars are an endangered species. When Turner sings ‘I’ve played to quiet rooms like this before’, it’s funny because he really hasn’t. But ‘Tranquility Base’ feels exactly the type of music suited to the quiet rooms.

If you blur your eyes, and ears, accordingly, for the first 30 seconds of ‘Four Out of Five’ (a lead single that didn’t actually lead the album) it would be easy to mistake the song for something from ‘AM’; the tight bass line interlocking perfectly with a popping snare. But in the chorus it blossoms in to something far richer than anything on that album. This time the backing vocals don’t just mirror the lead melody, they dance around it, enhancing and (at points) mocking the message of the narrator. Guitars squiggle in the margins, the orchestras glitters on top, Alex croons and moans and sneers. The song is a clever satire but more importantly it’s endlessly enjoyable. Asked by Ryan Domball if there was any particular reason for naming a taqueria on the roof the ‘information action ratio’, Turner replied ‘I don’t think so. It just sounded interesting. Something to look at.’ Perhaps he was being coy or perhaps not. Either way, it rolls off his tongue with style.

Turner, never a songwriter with the longest attention span, now flips from observation to observation without much consideration for coherence or narrative. Before, on the likes of ‘Pretty Visiters’ or ‘Library Pictures’ this was done largely for effect – to show off his Olympian verbal dexterity or to simply to delight in the auditory thrill of the sibilance, half rhymes and ridiculous similes. Here though it reflects the shortened attention span of the characters he’s describing, ‘sucked into a hole through a handheld device’. One song is named after a YouTube meme (‘The Workd’s First Monster Truck Flip’), another, ‘She Looks Like Fun’, races from image to image like someone scrolling down their Instagram feed. ‘Bukowski. Dog sitting. Screw balling.’ That song in particular is a murky, heavy, deeply weird slog with an air of wonder and hallucinogenic glee – the type of song that might be played on an especially demonic merry go round ride. In both sound and content, it’s the perfect rendering of how it feels to be sucked down a YouTube black hole.

It’s a dicey game, writing about technology, one that easily boils over in to didacticism or worse, threatens to make you sound like a fuddy-daddy. At times Turner is one small step away from becoming Father John Misty. Luckily he reins it in at the right moments. He’s aware of his own complicity in a game we are all playing to varying degrees and is only too happy to mock or undermine his sense of authority and wisdom. Only on ‘Batphone’ do the observations feel a little too ponderous and oblique, the tone a little too detached. He recovers on the gorgeous album closer ‘The Ultracheese’, a ballad that ranks alongside ‘Cornerstone’ and ‘Love Is a Laserquest’ in the band’s catalogue of sweet and sober meditations on nostalgia and ageing. ‘Oh the dawn won’t stop weighing a tonne/I’ve done somethings I shouldn’t have done but I haven’t stopped loving you once.’ The song ends abruptly, at the conclusion of that sentence, with no big send off or dramatic crescendo, and the melody is left somewhat unresolved. The music stops and Alex coos sentimentally, before the lights fade and the curtain drops. It’s a morsel of romance in a world that otherwise seems remarkably short of the stuff. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ presents a generally grim vision of the future but in its final moments Alex Turner makes assurances that there will always be room for human connection and commitment. It’s a touching finale to what could (could) be the band’s most accomplished album to date.

9.5/10

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