Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino: “a lunar lounge departure”
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes. Now look at the mess you made me make.” And what a mess. Alex Turner has written a loungey concept album about the moon being gentrified and turned into a luxury resort.
Unlike the subtle style shifts between previous Arctic Monkeys albums, Tranquility Base Casino & Hotel represents a bold, interstellar departure that’s likely to alienate fans. Gone are the slick muscular riffs, hip-hop grooves and R’n’B-tinged falsetto harmonies that made AM (2013) the band’s most commercially successful record to date. Fearing he’d become overfamiliar with his guitar, Turner conceived Tranquility Base Casino & Hotel on a Steinway piano, given to him as a 30th birthday present. Rather than acerbic observations, urban poetry or witty, original takes on romance, Turner’s lyrics resemble a series of stream-of-conscious short stories with themes inspired by the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Federico Fellini, as well as modern philosophy books such as Neil Postman’s 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death and David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Infinite Jest.
Setting meandering musings to light piano noodling and a ponderous mid-tempo beat, ‘Star Treatment’ welcomes the listener to a prolonged stay inside the rambling mind of Turner as a lounge-bar singer marooned on the moon. “Finally I can share with you, through cloudy skies, every whimsical thought that enters my mind,” Turner later threatens.
And share he does. From recalling his adolescent infatuation with the aforementioned Strokes, to describing his character’s “Impressive moustache”, and incredulously asking “what do you mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?”, Turner remains a captivating, charismatic and – crucially – funny lyricist. The title track starts with “Jesus in the day spa, filling out the information form”, while on ‘She Looks Like Fun’ he advises to “Dance as if somebody’s watching, cause they are”. On ‘Star Treatment’ Turner boasts of being “a big name in deep space… ask ya mates”, echoing the unmistakable couplet-cadence of John Cooper Clarke, his favourite poet as a schoolboy.
It’s not all whimsical frivolity though. More explicitly than before, Turner comments on far-reaching political and social phenomena, including alternative facts (“they take the truth and make it fluid”), our insatiable demand for and consumption of cultural “content” (“everybody’s on a barge floating down the endless stream of great TV”), and total immersion in social media (“Have I told you all about the time that I got sucked into a hole through a hand held device?”).
Unlike Father John Misty, Turner observes rather than preaches, forgoing aggravating sarcasm for amusing self-deprecation. On ‘One Point Perspective’ he entreats us to “bear with me man / I’ve lost my train of thought” before abruptly pausing. Similar self-referential winks to camera abound. Elsewhere Turner indicates forthcoming key changes and semi-tone shifts, while “Science Fiction” betrays his fear that Tranquility Base Casino & Hotel will “just end up too clever for its good”.
He’s partly right. At times Turner comes across as an oh-so-droll smart alec, the album as one big in-joke (though unlike the last Last Shadow Puppets’ record, funny). It doesn’t help that accompaniments sometimes veer dangerously close to musical comedy. ‘She Looks Like Fun’ is a plodding glam-rock/cabaret crossover (though you can imagine it being dramatic live), while closer ‘The Ultracheese’ is a deliberately noxious piano ballad redolent of past collaborator Richard Hawley (who has a lot to answer for).
Turner’s lyrics only carry the album so far. ‘Star Treatment’, which at nearly six minutes is the band’s longest track yet, floats rather pleasantly into the plinking piano of ‘One Point Perspective’. But after the initial novelty of this lunar lounge departure wanes, it starts to feel like Turner is just waffling over the same forgettable track for 40 minutes as if you’re stuck in the hotel’s elevator with a garrulous sci-fi enthusiast.
There’s a reason no singles were released in anticipation of the album: there aren’t any. Choruses are scarce; Turner is testing your patience: he’s moved your chair and he won’t give it back. ‘Four Out of Five’ is the album’s most memorable track, though not necessarily for the right reasons. Characterised by eyebrow-raising key changes and alluringly bewildering harmonic detours, the song orbits around Nick O’Malley’s understated bass groove – the closest the album comes to imitating its predecessor – and Jamie Cook’s ultra-fuzzy guitar. Otherwise O’Malley and Cook’s playing seems subdued, while the usually dynamic, versatile Matt Helders sounds more like a compliant house-band drummer.
‘Four Out of Five’ also incorporates airy harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, cited by Turner and critics as a significant influence on Tranquility Base Casino & Hotel. The parallels are somewhat overstated. Too often James Ford’s production (excellent on the sleek AM) sounds muddy and nebulous where detail is needed. At times Cook’s guitar is so submerged in fuzz that notes become indistinct, while Turner’s piano playing is so bland you occasionally forget it’s in the mix – “jazzy” makes it sound more exciting than it is. On songs such as ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip’ (its title is its most distinctive feature) the production and Turner’s pallid piano jabs are more suggestive of a generic lounge bar rather than one specifically located on the moon.
That’s not to say the lunar theme is left unexplored. ‘Golden Trunks’ circles around a spooky ascending guitar riff; ‘Batphone’ integrates a charming bluesy motif with a warbling UFO-like synth; and ‘American Sports’ starts with a bleeping arpeggiated sequence before Turner forces clunky phrases into a soft croon. Turner tests the different dimensions of his voice throughout, often evoking the half-sung half-spoken theatrical delivery of David Bowie. The title track, which itself sounds like it could be a gentler b-side from Black Star, finds Turner not so much crooning as cooing softly in your ear, before howling about being kissed “beneath the mooooon’s sidebooooob” like a randy yet rueful wolf. At other times Turner more closely resembles a rogue, interstellar Sean Connery, chewing and sloshing sticky sibilant syllables in his distinctive transatlantic drawl.
Those who mocked Turner for sounding more New York City than Rotherham on AM will remain perturbed. But criticising a 32-year-old for not sounding like the same raspy Sheffield scallywag he was at 20 disregards the greater depth and richness Turner’s voice now possesses. The Arctic Monkeys are no longer adolescents writing furiously-paced songs about kitchen-sink drama – and they haven’t been for a long time. Each album has marked a change, if not a progression in their sound; the band were never going to churn out AM2. At the same time there is a latent snobbery in dismissing certain fans’ opinions because they are perceived as laddish “Strongbow dark fruits” types who couldn’t possibly comprehend anything other than banging tunes and riotous guitar riffs. The band have certainly never embraced nor perpetuated the lad-rock label they are sometimes unfairly associated with. As Turner quipped on 2007’s “Teddy Picker”: “Assuming that all things are equal, who’d want to be men of the people… when there’s people like you”.
The band shouldn’t be criticised simply because they have changed – nor should they be acclaimed for it. Admired yes, acclaimed no. Tranquility Base Casino and Hotel provides a strangely endearing stay, but it’s no Four Stars Out of Five.