Review: Arctic Monkeys 'Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino'
It's here! It's weird! It's ... maybe only OK? Lemme tell you, 'only OK' was not what I wanted from this record. In fact, full disclosure, I REALLY wanted to love it. In reality, listening to Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino feels like all the times I've battled with Thomas Pynchon or stared too hard at a Dalì, desperately looking for the 'real' meaning, scanning footnotes for context.
What follows is usually a hollow suspicion that I'm outside the joke, that I’m only overhearing parts of the conversation, that maybe this wasn't made for me. Luckily I'm not a total narcissist and can appreciate objective excellence from a distance, but for a band who've historically capitalised on a close, sweaty reality, something feels off.
A lil scene setting: in a galaxy far far away The Martini Police play to a disinterested crowd at the Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. It's been five years since 18-year-olds from New York to Sheffield played 'AM' on repeat, and Alex Turner is having an identity crisis.
Showing all the signs of a band who know they don't need to 'try' anymore, Arctic Monkeys didn't release any singles or teasers ahead of the album and made sure to sell out their stadium tour while the hype was at fever pitch. Watching lunar lounge lizard Alex Turner try to work the stadiums with this record will be ... interesting?
Kudos to the kid, because following a crowd-pleasing rock/hip-hop classic like AM was always going to be awkward. Put out an AM2 and we'd all argue they'd become formulaic, and wail about waiting five years for nothing. Put out a psych-loungey-70s space jam and, as you can imagine, the lads in their Lyle & Scott polos are pissed off too. I've got full respect for Turner making the album he wanted to make, even it doesn't have mass appeal or radio-friendly singles. Personally, it makes them a more exciting and rewarding to follow, but it also reeks of a band at the top of their game who know they can do whatever they want with little clap-back.
This creeping creative entitlement is the Achilles heel of the album. Turner is so indifferent to the listener he's admitted it's '11 tracks of me having a world with myself', and the implication is that we should be so lucky to overhear him. In a recent confessional interview, Turner admitted Tranquility Base is 'a declaration about retaining my integrity ... this was all I had. I don't know what else I could have done, truly', a point laboured on 'Batphone' with the pithy "I launch my fragrance called ‘Integrity’ / I sell the fact that I can’t be bought". We get it, Alex Turner is worried about his reputation. Tranquility Base feels increasingly like an Alex Turner solo project, and whilst he's self-aware of the fact, it's no less a shame to see the talents of drummer Matt Helder wasted on such a mellow, self-interested album.
The 'Tranquility Base' setting itself feels like an odd attempt to obscure the intimacy of Turner's lyrics, and so far away from the HD clarity of the old work. Why yell 'you're not from New York City you're from Rotherham!' when you can wax lyrical about the 'The World's First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip'? Alex has grown into a dull self-consciousness he exposes on 'Science Fiction': "I want to make a simple point about peace and love / But in a sexy way where it's not obvious". Booo!
That being said, I'm not gonna be the loser that bemoans 'the good old days' or the fact Arctic Monkeys have mixed up their style. They're all 30-somethings living in LA; a record about fighting in Sheffield and teenage sex would be weird. Turner's recent insistence that Tranquility Base 'reminds me of the way [he] wrote in the beginning' therefore feels disingenuous. I guess he's getting at the bluntness of lines like the opener: "I just wanted to be one of the Strokes". But I also think 2006 Alex would kick 2018 Alex in the shins for BS like "my virtual reality mask is stuck on 'Parliament Brawl'". Allusions to the terror of social media and tech are some of the most boring motifs on the album; we all know Instagram is mind numbing, but is that really the most pertinent social commentary he could make??
Themes and 'meaning' aside, my only real issue with the record is how little I enjoyed it. Concept albums are fun n' all, but when each track bleeds into the other and you need the lyric book to make sense of all the smug in-jokes, where's the joy in that? Arctic Monkeys records historically pack a real punch. They're relationship definers, love songs, breakup songs, the soundtrack to our lives. These are British boys exploring how it feels to be alive right now, not lunar crooners making lounge music.
Maybe that's what takes us to heart of Tranquility Base; it's a piece of work totally out of time and space. They've perfectly executed Alex's vision as the intergalactic house band. Muffled background melodies, lyrics coming in fragments, a monotonous hum.
We're not in High Green anymore, Toto.