The ego has landed! Arctic Monkeys have finally delivered their long-anticipated sixth studio album, and it could be their most ambitious to date. A concept album, of pure retro futurism, set in a luxury hotel on the moon for the rich, the famous and even Jesus himself. This collection of loungey piano ballads seems a major departure from the big riffs of AM, presenting something of a challenge to those fans who’ve waited five long years for another hit record from the quartet. The album begins with ‘Star Treatment’ and the change of sound is immediately apparent, as Alex Turner croons over this lush new setting, smooth jazz chords pass by like elevator music from the 60s. The muted, staccato bass guitar and percussive wood block initially recalls sonics from The Beach Boys Pet Sounds, but the vibe is more akin to the music you’d expect to hear in an extremely glamorous retro game show, played while the rotunda turns to reveal a gleaming sports car.
The aesthetic is enhanced by Turner’s stream of consciousness lyrics, word pictures that paint the scene of a washed up 70s star, performing a residency at a hotel, while staying in the honeymoon suite and drowning his sleazy sorrows in a sea of Martinis. But this is only impressionistically sketched, for the timeline begins to unravel when you take a closer at the words: if he did too much in the 70s, how come he wanted to be one of The Strokes? Turner begins with an autobiographical quip, before allowing the song to wander off into a fantasy world. It’s a trick he employs throughout the album: flitting between here, now, there and then, allowing him to hint with oversight at America’s divided politics, for example, without having to come down to earth and live amongst it.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is the sound of Alex Turner discovering the piano, as a writing tool, and hunkering down alone, in his LA home studio. The singer even admits to being a little worried about what his band-mates would think of the new direction, when it came to presenting them with such a departure. Guitarist Jamie Cook was the first to get on board, and he did so fully, impressed with Turner’s new-found piano abilities, and relieved not to be attempting some kind of AM part two. It’s inescapable, though, that this record will bother some die-hard fans of that last album, Turner’s words are fascinating, presented like an old novel in the layout of the lyric book, they make for an interesting read even without the exotic musical setting. What they don’t do very often is conform into the sort of memorable chorus melody that typified AM, with its tendency to weave 90s r’n’b and modern hip-hop beats into the Arctic’s already well-established guitar rock sound.
There are, of course, exceptions to prove this rule. ‘Four Out Of Five’, has a hooky chorus, which reads like an advert for a taco restaurant on the roof of this space hotel: “Take it easy for a little while, come and stay with us, it’s such an easy flight… The Information Action Ratio is the place to go, four stars out of five”. Which may look a little long-winded (and I’ve cut it down) but it gets repeated so many times at the end of this five minute track that you can’t escape it. The absurdity of the whole proposition is potentially illustrated by his choice to call the taqueria ‘The Information Action Ratio’. It’s named after cultural critic Neil Postman’s theory, which suggests that as the amount of information in our lives increases we find it increasingly difficult to identify what is relevant and what appropriate action we should take. It’s an idea that seems incredibly prescient in this day and age, where the media landscape is a confusing one, full of fake news, alternative facts, spin and fluff.
I imagine for Turner it’s an even stranger world than it is for most of us, the opening lines of the album give us a clue: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes”. You get the sense that it has all gotten a bit out of hand for the singer. Fronting the biggest band to come out of England in the last 15 years, with a remarkable career trajectory that’s just gone up, and up, and up, accompanied by a touring cycle which must have taken its toll. For all its allusions to sci-fi escapism, underneath the surface this album is actually likely the sound of Turner coming down to earth, isolated in his home studio, crafting this meta-narrative of absurdist reflections. For the world of stardom they’ve found themselves in it must be an odd remove to witness the rise of a figure like Trump (“The leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks”). The wealth and praise he found heaped upon him, must have created a strange perspective to consider the economics of the Occupy movement or the messy politics of Brexit. It feels like Turner’s saying, ‘I could be up on the moon front-flipping a monster truck and it would still be less mental than what’s going on down there’. There are parallels between this album and last year’s Pure Comedy, by Father John Misty, who also retreated to his piano to craft a lyrically rich album of ballads. Although Turner has taken musical chops from David Bowie, John Lennon, Brian Wilson, and even Tom Waits, rather than Elton John. He’s wrapped it all up in an exotica bow of bontempi organs and a box of sound effects Joe Meek would have been proud of. It may trouble some that it feels, at times, more like an Alex Turner solo album, but I’d encourage you to sit back and enjoy the ride: four stars out of five.