It’s been a long hiatus for the Arctic Monkeys while their leading man has been off gallivanting with Miles Kane under the guise of The Last Shadow Puppets. On May 11th they’re back with their newest offering. How does it stack up next to their previous album AM which was their biggest commercial success to date?
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (TBHC) seems like a collision of nostalgia and space-age futurism. As strange a description as this may sound, this album is cosmic yet mellow and jazzy, permeated with pop culture references from The Old Grey Whistle Test to the 80’s neo-noir sci-fi film Blade Runner. There are political dabblings, including a potential Trump bashing “the leader of the free world / reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks” and references to technology, something which Turner is known for being reluctant to embrace, particularly when it comes to social media.
“Have I told you all about the time that I got sucked into a hole through a hand held device?”
At the will of producer James Ford, these 11 tracks were predominantly recorded in La Frette studios just 15 minutes outside of Paris, where Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds perfected their 2016 album ‘Skeleton Tree’.
It’s impressive to hear an album which is sonically consistent throughout, with acute attention to detail being shown even down to the seamless flow between tracks; something which is ever so satisfying for the listener (I’m even convinced the last track flows back into the first, though maybe I’m going mad from having it on repeat all week). The resulting sound is an intimate one, conjuring the image of a sort of smoky jazz club/speakeasy complete with Turner’s grand piano and the classy aloofness seen in the band’s recent promo shoot.
The retro/future juxtaposition starts at the obscure album cover which features some abstract shapes stacked on top of a glowing device. The device is actually a Revox tape machine from the 70s/80s and the space-age cut outs were made by Turner himself, as he turned his attention to balancing cardboard hexagons on vintage sound equipment. The 6 sides of the hexagons are supposed to signify TBHC being the 6th of the Monkeys’ albums.
It’s exciting to hear Turner’s new Steinway piano really taking the limelight in this album. The instrument was a 30th birthday present which has pushed this album in a refreshing new direction, even changing the Arctic Monkeys’ writing process. Soulful and matured, the sound is very much stripped back to the keys and vocals with sporadic, almost jazzy drums chipping in seemingly from afar.
A trademark AM sound still rings throughout, likely due to Turner’s distinctive voice. It occasionally comes with an air of pretention, with a number of clumsy lyrics and try hard vocals. The song writing is creative and poetic as usual, just some of the more obscure phrases come across sounding a little forced. This is most noticeable in the first verse of the title track where Turner sings as Mark the receptionist, answering calls from the TBHC itself. Initially it seems Turner is straining to reach the Bowie-esque vocals and cosmic sound but perhaps this excess of tranquillity is just an unsettling change from the fast-paced garage post-punk indie-rock we’ve grown accustomed to.
The second half of the album is admittedly more disappointing than the first…
For better or worse, The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip sounds like an unreleased Beatles hit. As entertaining as they may be, these close parodies leave you longing for a more authentic sound like on AM with timeless hits like Arabella. As with the similarities to Bowie’s sounds, it’s so closely parodied that you wonder what happened to the Arctic Monkeys we know and which track is going to be the next Arabella or Fluorescent Adolescent?
The eighth song of the eleven, Science Fiction, was probably my least favourite and felt a bit empty with lacklustre lyrics which highlight my earlier point about forcing the obscure poetry:
“Mass panic on a not too distant future colony
I want to make a simple point about peace and love
But in a sexy way where it’s not obvious”
Hear the descending scale/arpeggios and tell me four Swedes in white tunics aren’t about to shout MONEY, MONEY, MONEY at you in unison.
On Batphone Turner sings “Emergency battery pack just in time for my weekly chat with God on video call” and in a recent interview he talks about his experience with his new instrument: “There are chords that came out, my fingers were falling different places, and the sounds were giving me ideas. That I was the guy sitting at the piano also gave me ideas.”. Potential god-complex aside, it’s clear that this piece of work is close to his heart from the way he talks so romantically about his new-found writing process.
Overall this album is refreshing and consistently creative. If you can accept this new side to the Arctic Monkeys you’ll come to appreciate every song on this album.
Peruse their back catalogue and you might be shocked at the stark contrast between this new release and the archetypical ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’. This is a band that’s ridden their success well, matured, increased their fan base and all the while pushed their creative efforts to put together engaging and refreshing new sounds.