Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
A nuanced look at Alex Turner’s Sheffield-to-L.A. stardom coupled with an original take on the 2018 we've all experienced, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino shoots for the moon – and ends up in an endless line for tacos at a pop-up near Clavius
If, instead of flaming out, Ziggy Stardust simply chased a Xanax with a dry martini and took up residence as a lounge singer at a four-star resort in the near-future lunar Golden State – part Early Millennial Hotel California, part Overlook – his second set on a Wednesday night might sound like Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
The sixth studio album from the Arctic Monkeys features frontman Alex Turner turned down, lost in a hedge-maze with his head voice, and at his most lyrically potent — both in introspection and in reflection on the state of permanent surreality that we, his listeners, have come to find familiar, if never comfortable. The album can be dense and rewarding. Unfortunately Turner’s experimentation with piano as his primary instrument, coupled with the rest of the band’s apparent contentment to let him develop most of the tracks in isolation, doesn’t find a proper footing.
Proof of enduring artistic daring, this is. An electric articulation of waking and sleeping and waking again in 2018, this is. An 11-track Leonard Cohen-y kind of poem — the album is this, too. But a wholly satisfying and self-propelled pop concept record, this is not. Years from now, critics and fans will view Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino in much the way we view 2009’s Humbug: pivotal but at worst forgettable, albums to rediscover but not to take to a desert island (or the ISS), efforts most notable as laying the conceptual groundwork for future triumphs.
The platinum-selling dusky grime-glam smash AM was – for all its compact pop artistry, 90s hip-hop vibes, and clever Turnerisms in a sultry baritone croon – mostly proof positive that guitar rock just won’t die and, even more shocking to some, that we’re all the better for it. Freeing themselves from the pressure to in any way “follow” AM on Tranquility yields some laudable results.
The absence of guitar on tracks like One Point Perspective lets us appreciate Nick O’Malley’s bass, which, rather than filling up the extra space, leaves enough notes out to make even Miles Davis crack a smile. And Turner, in setting down the lead guitar, also puts aside his former (granted, fruitful) fixation on his own sexual and romantic desires, allowing space for more nuanced introspection, as well as a surprisingly sustained embrace of political themes (if not the heat of politics as such).
'Do you celebrate your dark side then wish you’d never left the house? / Have you ever spent a generation trying to figure that one out?' Turner sings on the title track. He’s talking about the AM of Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High – and the nearly five-year “generation” of peak Monkeys fame and relentless airplay that’s passed since then. And, to his credit, Turner on this album is aware that something more than a succession of designer luggage on baggage claim conveyor belts has passed since 2013.
Some time after the release of AM, 400 million (or more) users woke up to find politics like a U2 album automatically downloaded to their iPods, with no explanation and no way to delete it. We recognise rooftop taquerias and the erotic appeal of “data storage” and other “technological advances,” but more importantly, Turner tackles a real-life president who once bodyslammed and forcibly shaved WWE promoter Vince McMahon; Reagan’s “‘shining city’ on the fritz”; and an evident imbalance in the Information Action Ratio and “movements” that moved online. Life for all of us, as Turner knows, has changed; life since AM has been 'A montage of the latest ancient ruins soundtracked by a chorus of you don’t know what you’re doing,' as he sings on American Sports.
'I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,' goes the album’s bold opening, 'Now look at the mess you made me make / Hitchhiking with a monogrammed suitcase miles away from any half useful imaginary highway' – before leaving the autobiographical for what feels like the universal, a place where 'Everybody’s on a barge floating down the endless stream of great TV.'
There is some lyrical filler here – Turner sometimes seems to free-associate sounds the way Basement Tapes-era Dylan would, waiting until the slant-rhymes lead him to something profound – but at its best Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino offers an unprecedentedly personal look at Turner’s experience. He shares the ennui, dissociation, irony and unfulfillment of his particular celebrity destiny, coupled with a biting and original take on a more widely shared quotidian anxiety that listeners will note with nods and laughs and hums of recognition. But a hit or two would have been nice.