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To quote Al Pacino, more specifically Michael Corleone from the lesser of the Godfather films, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” And instead of collapsing in my kitchen, clutching at my heart and yelling the name of my dead brother, “Fredo! Fredo!” I yell “Alex Turner! Alex fucking Turner!” I’ve gone full Michael Corleone with the release of Arctic Monkeys sixth album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. I’ve been quite vocal about this band, my hatred for their previous album AM, as well as my undying love for their first album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Much like the love Michael has for his brother whom he had assassinated in Godfather 2, what I thought was a strictly love hate relationship with the band has transcended into an infatuation. As if we are now divorced, but we are still active in each other’s lives because we must watch our son play football on a Saturday morning.
I remember waking up on the Friday morning of the album’s release and saving the album in my Spotify, queued up and ready to listen to on my way to work. I had never been so excited to get in my car on a Friday morning, but more specifically, I didn’t expect to be excited for another Arctic Monkeys album. I wasn’t excited like a schoolgirl listening to Post Malone without a shadow of criticism. I was excited to be critical of Tranquility Base, purely from the brief media splash before the release stating that this album is dramatically different to what made AM so popular. There will be no stadium choruses or loud, fuzzed out guitar solos, the posts said. This will be a dialled back Arctic Monkeys album, with keys and a late-night jazz flair. As if Turner has surpassed his dumb-fuck rockabilly look that was forced into existence and has travelled back to become a door-to-door vacuum salesman in the 60s who also smokes weed and listens to Dave Brubeck.
Understanding the title of this album before diving in head first is more beneficial than understanding Post Malone’s new album title: Beer Bongs and Bentleys. Here, the title gives the music context; a point of reference if you get lost in the unknown. Tranquility Base is the site on the moon, where humans landed and walked on another celestial body for the first time in 1969. Neil Armstrong named the site approximately eighteen seconds after his and Aldrin’s landing, announcing, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” And it has remained unvisited ever since. My mind wanders, much like I expect Turner’s did, to a site laid dormant for so long, nearly fifty years to be exact, and is now suddenly the site of a hotel and casino. A bustling hub of criminals, addicts, sexual deviants and tourists. This is the soundtrack to it.
Star Treatment kicks off the album. Immediately, we aren’t in Kansas anymore. Crisp piano notes and a jazzy drum beat introduce the track, followed by a bouncy bass and distant falsetto croons. Turner’s over articulated vocals kick in, spinning a story of what I consider to be about a vagabond on the moon, hitchhiking his way into the bar of The Casino, rocket ship grease staining the cracks of his knuckles. His refrain in the chorus, “who you gonna call? The martini police,” feels ripped from a Frank Sinatra song. If only Turner’s croon was a little deeper.
But on the subject of choruses, this album has very little of them. And I love that. The songs roll on with mostly minimal instrumentation, and lack of a solid hook that audiences can chant back at Turner as they try to grope his leather pants. The AM days are gone. The choruses Arctic Monkeys provide are much simpler, sometimes non-existent, as they rely on the instrumentation to act as the hook. Like in tracks One Point Perspective, Golden Trunks and Batphone, specific melodies, whether it’s in Turner’s vocals or a guitar riff, act as the song’s hook. Turner’s lyrics won’t repeat, but the melody will, straying away from the conventional ‘rock’ formula the band previously relied on. Now it’s more like listening to a classical piece of music, or even jazz, as the melody acts as a theme that’s repeated throughout the song instead of a chorus.
The choruses that the band do use in the album aren’t the typical Monkeys style either. Like in tracks Four Out of Five and She Looks Like Fun, the former being the lead single the band are using. It’s the most conventional on the album whilst sticking to the overarching theme of the album. The fuzzed-out desert rock guitars and Matt Helders’ falsetto refrain would sit snuggly on AM or even Suck It and See, but the composition itself is suits Tranquility Base. The thin vocal harmonies used in the verses sound as if they belong on a David Bowie album, especially in the build into the end chorus. The fuzzy guitar line plays the same melody as Turner as he sings, “four stars out of five,” emphasising the theme and building the small chorus that is stuck in my head. The track is a beautiful mix of 60s style backing harmonies against space-aged instrumentation.
The lyrical content on the album is also a dramatic step away from Turner’s usual repertoire. Four Out of Five could be taken as a look into Turner’s own life as a now world-renowned rock star as he sings, “Okey cokey with the opposite sex, the things you try to forget, doesn’t time fly?” and “take it easy for a little while, come and stay with us, it’s such an easy flight.” A life of excess and privilege while he’s being reviewed four stars out of five for his work. That’s one interpretation, but the story of the song is much different to a paint by numbers look at Turner’s life as seen in previous albums. Four out of five could be a review of the Hotel and Casino on the moon, and it’s pitched as a place to come visit and meet someone you like during the meteor strike, maybe visit the lunar surface on a Saturday night. Turner has never been so creative with his lyrics, and it makes me enjoy listening to the album more. The theme of the album is consistent not only in composition, but in Turner’s cryptic and creative lyrics. I’d much rather listen to a song about himself, disguised amongst a science fiction tale, instead of listening to a song with no creativity like ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino does continue to irk me the more I listen to it though. I don’t like to listen to this album on shuffle, because I think it smartly moves from track to track and builds in a sensible fashion. But I still get a shock to the system when I begin the album and must come to terms with Turner’s over exaggerated articulation and his dramatic performance. He has a watery effect on his voice in Star Treatment that dulls his 50s crooner impersonation, but his vocals are clean in One Point Perspective and it still sends a shiver down my skin as he sings “dancing in my underpants, I’m gonna run for government,” against a single piano note and a painfully simple drum beat. Remember when Turner used to yell out “I bet that you look good on the dance floor,” against a rapid punk drum beat? Yeah me too.
The album also falls short on drumming. I know it’s not the rock anthems of AM, but Matt Helders is a talented drummer who’s been able to keep up with Turner’s bipolar album themes, and he’s not utilised to his potential on Tranquility Base. I’m sure the guy can play in a few different time signatures, jazz it up a bit. Instead he’s sitting at his kit, kicking the bass drum once every four beats, and hitting the hi-hat every now and then. I feel sorry for the guy; his skills are sorely missed on this album.
And, well, will you look at that, look at how much praise I’ve given Arctic Monkeys. Fuck me. To be honest, it’s not my favourite album of the year, but it gives me something new every time I listen to it. Arctic Monkeys haven’t done that for me since Whatever People Say. The two albums are drastically different, but I can appreciate the destination. I can appreciate the creativity and boldness the band took on this album, and Turner’s elevated song writing. I’d much rather listen to this album over the band’s previous two because they’ve trekked into uncharted territory. And not many modern rock bands have had such a dramatic tonal shift. This album has me excited to see what Arctic Monkeys have in store next. And I never thought I’d say that again.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was worth the hype.
Prologue: The hype certainly died down after a week or so from the album’s release. Clearly it didn’t tick all of triple j’s boxes like AM did.
After the Hype is a weekly series where I listen to an album after the hype dies down and give my general thoughts, sometimes a little whinge. It’s ok to disagree.