Before I say anything at all, I think it’s best you and I agree: nothing the Arctic Monkeys could have produced would have been enough. They are simply too loved – and for that, they are damned. We can take a look in that rose-tinted lens of retrospect, through each fleeting, transitory era: from ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, those lads with the impish gleam in their eye and that coarse, casual way of grabbing you by the collar, slamming you up against a wall and making you listen; all the way through to ‘AM’, that slicked back, seedy record that was dripping in LA arrogance with a Brylcreem sheen. Both are anthemic. Both are, arguably, the twin peaks of their career – yet they are a million miles apart, comparable only by that vein of straight-up rock that has made them heirs to the title of the greatest indie band of our generation. Now, for their sixth album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, we’re not talking in miles apart – we’re talking lightyears – from what’s been done before. We’re in a casino on the moon, and the Arctic Monkeys are going all-in.
Divisive, different and by default, dangerous: it’s a risk; from the moment it was released, it’s sent a crack right down the middle of their fanbase. The Nostalgics, misty-eyed for that glorious chip-shop rock we fell in love with, listened to ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ and gutted it. This isn’t what we came for, they thought, we didn’t want The Last Shadow Puppets’ sloppy seconds, or what Mini Mansions’ chewed up and spat out. It doesn’t feel right. It feels different – but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. You need to get your mind in the right place to even begin to appreciate it, let alone understand what the fuck it’s trying to do.
This record began in front of a Steinway Vertegrand piano Alex Turner received for his 30th birthday in his spare room. As these stray songs began to orbit around the same star, Turner named his makeshift studio ‘The Lunar Surface’ after the conspiracy that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing on a soundstage. He took this idea, and he applied it more than literally. Born from this came a high-concept album: it follows the goings-on in Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino – a hotel on the moon – at once as surreal and as cheap as it sounds, with its menagerie of unreliable cynics for narrators who Turner melds into, eleven different faces for the same man.
We all know that Alex Turner is one of the greatest lyricists of our time. It’s an irrefutable fact and I dare anyone to say otherwise. After reading the lyrics for each track on this album, it was impossible to not feel overwhelmed with the style, tone and quality. That same snide sense of humour and that sharpened wit that The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas said, after the release of their first album, made them “good, maybe a little too fucking good” is still intact, but now Turner is more nuanced, and the most enjoyable part of his lyrics is no longer their colloquial plainness, but the subtle shades of expression, concepts and references he makes throughout.
In the opening track ‘Star Treatment’, a sleazy, lounge-like atmosphere is evoked. The instrumental is languorous and manages to be a powerful asset of the song without demanding to be heard. Turner’s vocals are at a sultry lull; he’s in the habit of holding each syllable and savouring it. The lack of that spleen-busting pace we’re so accustomed to with the Arctic Monkeys previous work seems to let the devoted listener appreciate it so much more. The overriding theme of ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ is expressed here from the outset: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes/ Now look at the mess you make me make”, a disillusionment of stardom, and perhaps a dissatisfaction when dreams don’t align with reality.
You could accuse this album of being repetitive: the same, grandiose piano and tinkling synths are used in every song and seem consciously stripped of a chorus. Despite this, ‘Batphone’ stands out to me and I end up being drawn back towards it. This synthesiser-saturated song, with its infectious loop and profound bass comes off as ghoulishly theatrical. It feels like I’d be pointing out the obvious to call not only this song – but the entire album, for that matter – Bowie-esque to the hilt. Turner exemplifies another theme well here: the corruptive nature of modern technology. With lines like “Have I told you all about the time that I got sucked into a hole/ Through a handheld device?”, Turner seems to be evoking Black Mirror dystopia he hits home on almost every track. This song will undeniably be overlooked in the face of the likes of Four Out of Five, which seems to have taken the spotlight as the go-to track on the album. The verses and guitarwork bear a tenuous resemblance to Arctic Monkeys-past with an infectious beat. Despite its length, clocking in at just over 5 minutes long, I feel that despite its humdrum chorus anchoring the heart of the song, the verses and bridge are where the real piquancy of this song lies that keeps it worthy of listening to – for those who stay until the end, the zenith of the song is reached with a saxophone section that really sets it apart from the rest of the tracks on this album.
It is of little surprise to me that this atmospheric album built upon grandeur and theatrics is a bitter pill to swallow for what is now a fractured fanbase, split between the real and the surreal. Arctic Monkeys have discarded the unaffected sincerity of their early days and swapped it for a grey area of either pure genius, or simply pretentiousness dressed up as it. Initially, Arctic Monkeys didn’t want to put their name to Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, instead thinking it would fare better as Alex Turner’s solo project – perhaps it would have been better that way. But the more I think about it, the more I feel that what we expect from Arctic Monkeys is long gone, irretrievable; Alex Turner has the keys to one of the greatest indie bands we’ve ever seen, and if he wants to drive it differently, no one can stop him. Call it what you want, evolving or devolving: whatever people say they were, that’s what they’re not.