Five years is an incredibly long time. In today’s hyper-modernised digital age, it only takes little more than a day for a video to go viral, for a new meme to dominate news feeds or for someone’s career to hit the same lows as a mid-2000s Pitchfork flop. And yet still there are people out there who can go five years – or 1,825 days, to be precise – without making much of an impact on the world and still remain as relevant as they always had been. Arctic Monkeys are one such set of people, having remained somewhat silent on the recording front since 2013’s AM and the various non-Arctics side projects which followed, among them a critically acclaimed The Last Shadow Puppets comeback in 2016. The critical success which AM garnered the world over is more than most artists could ever wish for, with its slick, sultry tunes allowing Alex Turner and co. to reach a larger audience than ever before. From adoring teenage girls on Tumblr to the world’s ever-outspoken music critics circle, AM truly was an album for everyone, and one which certainly didn’t disappoint despite initial divisiveness among their loyal fanbase. For a band as big as the Arctic Monkeys, AM was a record which essentially served as a meticulously crafted sonic stepping stone for the next chapter in their ever evolving story: Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino. The new album, due tomorrow (11 May), is the first set of music to come from the band since AM sent them skyrocketing into the mainstream stratosphere. Not that its success has put too much weight on the quartet’s shoulders, though; on the contrary, the band were so confident about this new collection of music that it warranted no lead singles or excessive promotional campaigns. Instead, the band stuck to simplicity, opting for a short teaser video and a handful of exclusive worldwide interviews alongside a small selection of US shows leading up to its release. These shows included a night at the picturesque Hollywood Forever Cemetery, one of few locations which visually comes close to the sound and aesthetic that Turner and co. attempt to paint a picture of on Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino. The aforementioned is all fair and well, but it does beg one question: is the record actually any good?
Let’s start with the album title, which finds its roots deeply embedded within the world of 20th century space travel. Tranquility Base is the site on the moon where humans first landed back in 1969, marking one of mankind’s greatest achievements (albeit one which is yet to be repeated). In dreaming up an album title, Turner envisioned some sort of luxury leisure complex on the moon, the result of which is depicted on the album cover – created by Turner using cardboard and a tapedeck – and its accompanying title. Both form a solid visual and conceptual whole without so much as needing an entire song to aid it. You see, forty seconds is all Arctic Monkeys needed in order to send the world into a frenzy, but it was also all they needed to show the world exactly how they would approach a new album. Gone – for the most part, at least – are the gritty guitars, fuzzy basslines and laddish anthems; instead, the band have adopted lush sonic textures, jazzy undertones and a 70s psychedelic rock-meets-lounge sheen which sounds far removed from anything they’ve ever done before, even if AM vaguely hinted at its emergence. Take the lanky No. 1 Party Anthem, subtle Mad Sounds and poetic I Wanna Be Yours as three good examples of this. The only constant on Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is Turner’s knack for wistful lyrics, a talent he has made use of ever since day one (to varying degrees of cultural impact) and which some may dare to say has only truly come to fruition in the last couple of years. Work on the record reportedly commenced in the early months of 2017 in drummer Matt Helders’ Hollywood bedroom-cum-recording space, which Turner since went on to dub the ‘Lunar Surface’, a room filled with the finest instruments and a small corner for Turner which was littered with cardboard cutouts and cutting equipment. Having the visual side of Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino come to life in the same room as the music was initially conceived says a lot about the intimacy which went into making an album that thrives on the finer detail. In doing so, though, they most certainly weren’t alone; in an attempt to echo the recording processes undertaken on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Dion’s Born to Be With You, they invited friends to join them in the studio and contribute to the wide array of musical talent already in the room. Among the additional contributors were members of the now-defunct Klaxons, Mini Mansions, and Tame Impala’s Cam Avery. In September of last year, and together with all of their mates, the band reconvened at a studio just outside of Paris to add the finishing touches to a skeletal sonic outline which Turner had largely constructed himself back home in Hollywood, adding flesh to the bones and structure to the intimate thoughts and creations conceived by Turner.
The album opens on the quaint and welcoming Star Treatment, instantly setting the tone for the coming forty minutes. It’s all vintage sonic patterns and Nick O’Malley’s groovy bass until Turner spits out the first Arctic Monkeys lyric in five years. “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make” he seductively snarls over a combination of relatively simple-yet-effective instrumentation, referencing the New York indie rockers who had a great impact on Turner and co.’s early days. He manages to stretch his lamenting opening line to encompass an entire career, which is a pretty bold way to kick off your band’s boldest record to date. It only takes Turner 41 seconds of new music to mention the concept of outer space, doing so with such ease and conviction that it passes over you like a vintage Concorde heading for the skies. The lyrics on Star Treatment – as with the rest of the album – are filled to the brim with important musings that you could quite literally analyse for days, hammering home the near-poetic level of Turner’s brilliance from the word go. “So who you gonna call, the Martini Police?” he asks on the album opener’s makeshift chorus, his vocals underpinned by hollow harmonies and an instrumental backing so bare that you could miss it, yet still vital enough for it to play an important part. There’s even a dolceola on show here, a miniature piano which serves as one of eight different instruments Turner played on the record. The entire album is crammed with new instrumentation, with each band member adding to their skillset as the likes of timpani drums, a Farfisa and a Wurlitzer all contribute to their increasing levels of experimentation. Star Treatment is a slow, thoughtful start to an album which doesn’t really speed up that much at all, stalling at a continuous pace much like a glossy escalator to the heavens. One Point Perspective makes use of Turner’s brand new Steinway, which was gifted to him as a 30th birthday present and has turned out to play an extremely important role on the album. So much so, that Turner etched out the skeletal foundations of the album on said Steinway. “I’m gonna dance in my underpants, I’m gonna run for government, I’m gonna form a covers band and all” he sings on One Point Perspective’s gripping opening line, subsequently allowing for hints of orchestration to enter the frame alongside Matt Helders’ simple percussive beat. Instruments join one by one here, eventually fusing to produce a mouthwatering sonic finale. Meanwhile, Turner commands the listener to “bare with me man”, having lost his “train of thought”. It’s a clever use of lyrical engagement, allowing Turner to express himself whilst ensuring that the listener is still on board with all of the things he’s about to say.
And boy, does he say a lot. American Sports – which is glued to its predecessor – makes use of a wispy organ arpeggio which briefly speeds up the pace of the album, eventually slowing down in places as it falls back down to earth and Turner careers on with his endless lyrical exploration. There’s even a reference to British football culture when Turner mumbles, “you don’t know what you’re doing!” American Sports is the first moment on the album where Turner’s bandmates are able to explore their creative reaches, with Helders’ percussion picking up in prominence and subsequently inviting O’Malley to kick up the grooves a few notches. It all still revolves around Turner, though, even if guitarist Jamie Cook ditches his six-string in order to perch himself behind the lap steel, an instrument never before utilised in the previously narrow sonic itinerary of the Arctic Monkeys. Turner references VR headsets and God (“My virtual reality mask is stuck on Parliament Brawl / Emergency battery pack just in time for my weekly chat with God on video call“), essentially using them as a means to foreshadow his musings on meeting “so many lovers” and how the subsequent regret has “exploded behind my eyes like American Sports”. This lyric in itself could even serve as a nod towards the explosive pomp and grandeur present in the American sporting world, one which makes British sport look pale in comparison. It’s fascinating to see how Turner takes a personal topic and deconstructs it by initially lathering it in metaphors, before allowing them to melt away and leave him at his most fragile.
Title track Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino and the mystical Golden Trunks aren’t as much of a sprawling one-two as One Point Perspective and American Sports, but they’re still two powerful mission statements. “Jesus in the day spa, filling out the information form” sings Turner on the former, conceptually transporting himself to the physical location of the album on its chorus. “Good afternoon, Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino. Mark speaking, please tell me how I may direct your call?” he murmurs over the sound of a lilting Orchestron and programmed synths courtesy of co-producer James Ford, his band operating on a similar wavelength by means of grooving rhythms and percussive offshoots. The latter track, on the other hand, introduces one of the album’s very few fuzzed-out guitars, akin to those which the band made good use of up until 2013. Turner’s vocals are echoed by none other than himself, imitating his own voice at a higher octave and proving that anyone can be their own backing vocalist. He even plays bass here; in fact, he contributes bass lines to every song but the first three. It’s on Golden Trunks that Turner also delivers one of the most talked about lyrics of the record thus far, namely an extremely sly and thinly-veiled dig at Donald Trump: “the leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks” he sings in all seriousness, forcing imagery into people’s collective consciousness which most would not wish to have spared a thought for.
Album highlight Four Out of Five serves as the halfway point on the record, making for one of the best pieces of music which Arctic Monkeys have shared with the world to date. Spearheaded by a neo-funky riff and stabbing keys, Four Out of Five sees Turner lament the pressures put on him by fans and online ratings, sarcastically hinting towards this during the melodic chorus. “I put a taqueria on the roof, it was well reviewed. Four stars out of five, and that’s unheard of” he sings as his voice becomes absorbed by the multiple layers of instrumentation which accompany it. Four Out of Five is by far one of the album’s densest instrumental constructions, something which you only pick up on once you sit down and try to pick apart and distinguish the multiple layers of guitars, keys (hello, Orchestron), percussive instruments and ongoing vocal melodies. Turner provides his own backing vocals once again, climaxing on a final, über-harmonised call of the song title before its introductory riff plays it out. On paper, The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip sounds like the kind of song which has the potential to resurrect guitars and hark back to Arctic Monkeys’ early days, but it’s far from that. Lyrically, Turner battles the topics of self-service (“you push the button and we do the rest“) and data storage as he intertwines them with falling in love by means of a “laser I cannot adjust”. He indicates here that his love life is at the behest of technology, using the slightest hint of metaphor to imply his point. The song title originates from a news headline which Turner spotted last year, intriguing him so much that it spurred him on to name a song after it. The result clocks in at precisely three minutes, reintroducing the Farfisa whilst Turner describes himself as “a bad girl trying to be good”. It’s followed up by the snappy Science Fiction, which sees Turner once again reference religion (“religious iconography giving you the creeps?“) alongside disco lizards, swamp monsters and the hidden dangers of messages sent out by modern day science fiction. It’s not one of the best tracks on Tranquility Base + Hotel Casino, but with a bar already set so high from the off you’d have a hard time admitting that it still isn’t a bloody good track. The same goes for the slightly more abstract and curious She Looks Like Fun, which falls in the same category as Science Fiction but is by no means a bad track. It utilises warped piano lines, several sonic layers and altered vocal harmonies as Turner references DC Comics’ Wayne Mansion and speaking to strangers in bars. “I’m so full of shite, I need to spend less time stood around in bars waffling on to strangers all about martial arts” he sings with a curious mix of apprehensive urgency and laid back calm.
“Have I told you all about the time that I got sucked into a hole through a hand held device?” asks Turner on penultimate track Batphone, a DC Comics-referencing slow jam which handles mobile phone addiction and the dangers which this technological dependancy can present the human mind and soul. It’s one of the record’s sparser instrumental constructions, operating on little more than simple percussion, a whispering organ and additional backing vocals from Tame Impala’s Cam Avery. It makes way for album closer The Ultracheese, a song which places Turner at the core of his own fragility as he sings of lost friendships within the context of a social media timeline. “Still got pictures of friends on the wall, I suppose we aren’t really friends anymore” he declares on its opening line as a happy-go-lucky grand piano underpins him. If you listen very carefully, you’ll even pick up on another Donald Trump reference. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music which Arctic Monkeys have ever put out, and this is evident both in its pensive subject matter as well as in its grandiose sonic development and execution. You’ll even hear Turner at his most vocally articulate on The Ultracheese (at times mirroring the vocal melodies present on The Last Shadow Puppets’ Sweet Dreams, TN), introducing a certain rasp to his voice as his musings become more and more personal and self-reflective. The short-but-sweet guitar solo towards the end of the track – plucked so delicately by Jamie Cook (or Turner, who knows at this point?) – adds a sense of wistful delicacy to proceedings, enabling Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino to reach a satisfying close which surpasses all expectations. It ends the record on a mellow note, albeit one which sticks with you for hours on end as Turner’s parting vocal moan follows you around the (hotel) rooms of your mind.
Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino may be an album which is largely centred on main man Alex Turner, but there’s enough remnants of Arctic Monkeys’ collective ongoing legacy to indicate that this is the sound of four Sheffield-via-Hollywood natives who have turned the page and kicked off a new chapter in their careers. It’s important to note, though, that 2013’s AM was a definite prerequisite for this album’s existence. If the band hadn’t undertaken the semi-bold move that they made five years ago, then the foundations for Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino may have remained just that: echoes within Turner’s mind, specifically echoes which would have never got him thinking about the possibility of taking the creative helm and changing his band’s course faster than a King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard release schedule. You could write whole essays on Turner’s lyricism anno 2018 – and people will – as he utilises tons of subtle metaphors to tell a gradually intensifying story over the course of eleven well-worn and intricately layered pieces of music. The layers may take a while to appear for some, but they are most definitely there, ready and waiting to be discovered. For those who were drawn into the world of Arctic Monkeys by means of AM‘s commercial amphitheater rock melodies and monochrome sheen, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino will definitely alienate more than it satisfies. There are very few discernible choruses or “key” tracks (i.e. lead singles) to be heard, but there’s nothing wrong with that in the slightest; Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is an album best listened to as a cohesive whole. It’s a creative project which you need to absorb in order to understand, a gathering of sounds which echo every single fibre of Turner’s thought process. Some may suggest that the album was better off as an Alex Turner solo LP, yet they couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, it’s heavily influenced by the frontman’s presence, but this is how Arctic Monkeys have always been: a brilliant group of highly skilled musicians spearheaded by one mad scientist. Only this time round, the mad scientist has an adoration for Blade Runner, works on a Steinway and enjoys Mexican beers and cheap cigarettes whilst running a swanky hotel on the moon. If the sky isn’t the limit, then what is? Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino comes out tomorrow via Domino Recordings.