Since 2006, Arctic Monkeys have been laying out the blueprint for contemporary rock music – their early releases were supercharged and witty, while 2009’s Humbug saw the band take a moody U-turn into darker territory. With 2013’s AM they became swaggering, bona fide rock stars and seemed bigger and more unstoppable than ever before. Half a decade on, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino marks the longest gap between any of the band’s previous releases to date. In that time, frontman Alex Turner released and toured a second album with his side project The Last Shadow Puppets, drummer Matt Helders became a father and joined forces with Iggy Pop for the release of his album Post Pop Depression, while the rest of the band remained pretty much completely out of the public eye. It seems more appropriate than ever to once again ask “Who the f*** are Arctic Monkeys?”
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes/ Now look at the mess you made me make,” Alex Turner croons on the opening line of the new Arctic Monkeys album. Is it an accusation towards anyone in particular? It could easily be a tongue-in-cheek dig at his fans who propelled him to stardom, which comes with a lifestyle that is virtually compulsory and not always desirable in the long term. He continues: “I’m a big name in deep space/ Ask your mates but golden boy’s in bad shape” – has one of music’s most critically acclaimed songwriters gone wrong somewhere and is struggling to find his way back home? Only time will tell.
On first listen, and an indefinite amount of listens after that, it’s apparent that this is new territory for Arctic Monkeys, even by their own shapeshifting standards. On the face of it this is an Alex Turner solo effort, with its eleven tracks largely serving the singer’s new found love for the piano (“Steinway and his sons” even get a mention). Written and partially recorded by Turner in his home studio in LA, the songs on Tranquility Base see him entering a state of self-reflection that makes little space for the slick guitar lines and brooding drums that made up the DNA of AM – if nothing else it will be interesting to see how these songs translate to a live setting with the full band, and how they will sit alongside older material.
Tranquility Base is a medium-paced affair. The sci-fi/outer space setting was already a given from the album’s title and artwork, but the songs make the fictional resort a not-so-distant reality, filtering through the mustard yellow corridors to the passengers’ subconscious. ‘Four Out Of Five’ is the closest thing resembling a radio-friendly hit with an infectious chorus and fuzzy guitar passage, two things few and far between on this album, as Turner puts across a convincing pitch for a stay in the resort, “Take it easy for a little while/ Come and stay with us/ It’s such an easy flight.” ‘American Sports’ channels Jarvis Cocker with its moody, inquisitive spoken word verses, “So when you gaze at planet earth from outer space/ Does it wipe that stupid look off your face?” before the singers turns to his own experiences, “And I never thought/ Not in a million years/ That I’d meet so many lovers.” ‘She Looks Like Fun’ clatters around like the Bad Seeds, while ‘Batphone’ documents Turner coming to grips with modern society and its technology, “Life became a spectator sport/ I launch my fragrance called ‘Integrity’/ Have I told you about the time that I got sucked into a hole through a handheld device?”, with a Theremin-like sound providing a subtle background hook under the ramblings. The whole album is a collection of Alex Turner’s introverted musings, cruising from song to song; you can just picture Turner dashing between piano and pencil, sporadically jotting ideas down at 4am with an untidy mop and wild facial hair, like a less extreme version of Howard Hughes in his later years.
Unlike much of their previous work, this Arctic Monkeys album is not one for playing in sweaty clubs or cheap car stereos. This album is for dissecting with a fine-toothed comb in the dark, over and over. With more eyes on this release than any of their others to date, the last thing Arctic Monkeys should have done was release an attempted ‘AM Part 2’; that’s been done, everyone’s been there and got the three different tour t-shirts; instead, in Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, they have released their least commercial and most divisive album. It’s too early to tell how it will hold up in the long run, but it’s undeniably an interesting look into a band that seem a little bored of being on planet earth these days.
‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ is out now via Domino Records – Stream/Purchase here.