The ego has landed – Alex Turner and co. return with their eagerly-anticipated fifth album
Since hitting headlines with the fastest-selling UK debut in history, the Arctic Monkeys never seem to have gone away completely. They are all-pervading; ever in the conscience. So it’s mildly incredible that five years have passed since the last Arctic Monkeys album, AM.
The fact that AM still smells so new is testament to that record’s durability. It was a career high for the Monkeys, certainly their best since their debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not catapulted them to giddy levels of success. AM trumped the band’s debut offering in several regards, providing sophisticated, atmospheric bangers coupled with brain-coiling licks.
Enter then Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, on which the Monkeys remind us of one of their other strong suit: frustration. All of AM’s sneering rock ‘n’ roll momentum has been translated into a handbrake turn for this largely downtempo, piano-based record.
While hardcore fans would probably argue against it – and their unwavering headliner status certainly didn’t suffer for it – Arctic Monkeys did go through a confused patch. It’s no coincidence that their middle period albums Humbug and Suck It and See are unfavoured by fans, critics, the charts, and even the band’s setlists.
Those were strangely muted, difficult records which tentatively put out feelers instead of shooting out hooks. The songs seemed on a linear plain, rather than churning with the pleasing payoffs that both AM and the first two Arctic Monkeys albums were characterised by.
Unfortunately, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a return to that sound. It’s anything but tentative – in fact, it could be the most definitive twist in their career so far – but Alex Turner has taken off his leather jacket in favour of a silk robe. While this sometimes suits him, Tranquility Base isn’t the arresting listen that marks out the Monkeys’ best work.
The songs seem, in the strangest way, poetic. They wander off in front of the listener, looking around occasionally to see if we’re still following, but not particularly caring if we do. If it was a party host in that garish Paisley robe, it would introduce us to somebody before disappearing, cognac in hand, leaving us to small talk awkwardly.
Opener Star Treatment swims laps around its San Francisco rooftop pool with barely a middle eight to its name, let alone a chorus. The bass nudges forward muzak glockenspiels and tremulous backing vocals as Turner pours out a parallel universe stream of consciousness.
Lyrically, it very much sets the template for the rest of the record, with the words stretching down the page, often foregoing verses and choruses. Turner’s lyrics remain wry and clever, but what they really need is something to hang off, and Tranquility Base’s blinding sheen mostly fails to grip.
The staccato, Grizzly Bear-esque One Point Perspective is an early highlight – “Dancing in my underpants, I’m gonna run for government, I’m gonna form a covers band an’ all” it ingeniously begins – with a loungey, soft focus atmosphere. Its condensed, dreamy string section leads into American Sports nicely, spaced-out piano chords and a twittering synth part sounding like the theme from a 70s Bond movie never made because it was deemed too mad. Yes, madder than Moonraker.
It’s a chintzy sound that Turner has tinkered with in the past; one of a number of factors that leaves Tranquility Base into sounding like a solo album. His words are way up front, the band pushed backwards in the mix, the arrangements giving his echo-soaked voice every bit of space possible. Even the more immediate and cohesive Four Out Of Five – despite its Sgt Pepper backing vocal sections – is peppered at almost every opportunity by his vocal.
So it all comes off as horribly contrived, right? Well, actually, no. Turner really does seem to imbue this lounge lizard character. Even the way he almost chuckles at his own Jetsons-style joke on the chorus of the title track is endearing. “Good afternoon,” he sings above squelching bass and trilling keys, “Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, Mark speaking, please tell me how I may direct your call”.
If that doesn’t sound like much of a chorus written down, it’s because – like many other times – it doesn’t sound like much of a chorus on record. The crooning Batphone, with its ostentatious guitar textures is microcosmic melodrama, Turner’s voice fluttering all over its register. But like so many tracks, it’s linear, and doesn’t exactly deliver a knockout crescendo.
Maybe that isn’t the point. But the whole album feels like an anti-crescendo. So when on closer The Ultracheese Turner sings “still got pictures of friends on my wall, suppose we’re not really friends anymore”, much like the rest of the album, it’s a clever turn that just doesn’t stick the landing.
For fans of: John Barry, The Beatles, The Rat Pack
Standout tracks: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, American Sports, Four Out Of Five
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