Album Review: Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino

During the first year of my English Literature degree at the pinnacle of AM, I jokingly compared Alex Turner’s narrative to a tragic hero in a morality play. The tragic hero is defined in Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ as an individual faced with a series of transformative moral dilemmas that will ultimately lead to their downfall. Basically, Walter White’s gradual journey to becoming Heisenberg in Breaking Bad. Indeed, Alex Turner could thus be described as a morality play, a social experiment into what happens if you give $35 million, several supermodel girlfriends and a cocaine habit that would make Diego Maradona blush to a working-class Sheffield lad.

This moral dilemma is running throughout Tranquillity Base as Turner stands at the precipice of a Californian haze to cathartically reflect on the last five years. The hotel conceit could also be further developed into presenting Turner as not a permanent resident of the West Coast but only an out-of-place guest. If Alex Turner is indie-rock’s Walter White, Tranquillity Base is the proverbial Ozymandias as he ‘looks on his works… and despairs’ of the decadence.

Tranquillity Base’s concept is firstly ridiculously ambitious and the work of someone who’s gone a bit insane, reached the top and faced the vapid nature of celebrity culture. The album’s title is a reference to the name given to Turner’s rented home in LA which was inspired by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo Mission. After landing on the moon, Armstrong named the lunar space as their ‘tranquillity base’ and this subtly alludes to Turner’s methodical process whilst sat at the piano.

As Armstrong looked out into the universe’s vastness for some kind of epiphany, Turner is also sitting at the piano wrestling with his own demons and hoping his catharsis will provide some form of spiritual awakening. In Aristotelian discourse, Tranquillity Base is Turner’s moment of anagnorisis as he stands at the edge of this Californian precipice and is attempting to find where to go next.

The album is also ridiculously dense as it’s a Science fiction concept album inspired by everything from German filmmaker Rainer Fassbinder to American political strategist David Axelrod’s podcasts, Stanley Kubrick and David Foster Wallace’s postmodern behemoth ‘Inherent Jest.’ According to Rolling Stone, Turner also spent weeks sat locked up in his room studying European architects and only leaving to go the local stationary shop to buy craft materials to meticulously design the hotel’s structure on the album cover.

The album’s language is most similar to Library Pictures as he launches into obscure stream of consciousness in the style of postmodern gonzo literature as he references everything from Batman, odd characters to dystopic technological inventions. The work is therefore of someone firmly stood at the other end of the rabbit hole who is attempting to piece together the last five years of living in California and thus could be described as an impressionistic portrait of the West Coast.

In that respect, Tranquillity Base is a spiritual sequel to Whatever as both are concept albums about respectively Sheffield and LA’s nightlife through a series of illustrative vignettes. Many ambitious personal projects such as Bowie’s Station to Station and Oasis’s Be Here Now are often divisive as the band’s self-indulgence ultimately limits the accessibility for the listeners. When you begin to deconstruct Turner’s hotel, the furniture is assembled by AM’s interior designer but falls short of its success. Turner has always been a skilled lyricist when writing about love and communities with a grounded, sincere humility but his admirable thematic leap to writing on politics and technology is commendable but unfortunately just derivative.

Star Treatment
Tranquillity Base begins with a hotel reception’s bell and Turner proceeds to croon for five minutes about being jaded with LA’s ‘star treatment.’ Turner candidly opens the album with the admission that he ‘just wanted to be one of The Strokes… [but] golden boy’s in bad shape’ as he attempts to reconcile how getting handed ‘Is This It’ over his BMX in High Green has led to becoming a coked-up superstar in California. Like Bowie’s iconic pseudonym Ziggy, Turner takes on the role of a retired glam-rock artist who was ‘big in the 70s… with a make-believe residency’ which really fits with the lounge-y voice of someone with a tortured soul. Each chorus is also separated by the chime of elevator bells from American hotels and positions Turner moving throughout the floors. The transition between the floors creates an impressionistic vibe and represents Turner as intoxicated gliding across LA’s cityscape. Turner’s writing style is a continuation of ‘NO1 Party Anthem’ as the party’s eccentric characters are swapped for a panoramic representation of the city but the prolonged tangent just sounds like Father John Misty’s ‘Leaving LA’ or ‘Pure Comedy.’ An impressive ballad which sets the tone of the record and allows Turner to criticise the vapid nature of California with some impressive zingers.

Best lyric – ‘What do you mean, you’ve never seen Blade Runner?’

One Point Perspective
‘One Point Perspective’ is the most lyrically abstract record as it presents an individual driving through California with a ‘briefcase’ looking for the odd character Mr Snowman. The idiosyncratic lyrics don’t really make any sense and particularly resembles the eccentric stream-of-consciousness episodes in Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon’s works. Beginning with a simple hip-hop beat and an intriguing synth, it’s also the sleaziest song of the album which contains perhaps the most beautiful solo of Turner’s career. He goes full Shirley Bassey, more than that ‘Diamonds are Forever’ cover at Glastonbury, think Pulp’s ‘This is Hardcore’ combined with TLSP’s ‘Sweet Dreams TN.’
Best lyric – ‘Dancing in my underpants, I’m gonna run for government, I’m gonna form a covers band and all.’

American Sports
The latest album strangely recalls Pulp’s darker work which is co-incidentally only a year after Jarvis Cocker has also released a concept album about the iconic Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles. The vocals are distorted and Turner addresses the listener in a style that is similar to Cocker on tracks such as ‘Acrylic Afternoons’ and ‘Feeling Called Love.’ ‘American Sports’ is where Turner begins to criticise technology but the lines just sound a lacklustre paranoid Sci-Fi extract. The problem with criticising technology is that it’s incredibly difficult to not be derivative and makes you think that Turner should stick to writing on Black Treacle and not Black Mirror. The chorus is another astounding performance by Turner and allows him the luxury of playing out the fantasy of an aged lothario such as Cohen or Gainsbourg as he ponders that he ‘never thought that he would have so many lovers.’

Best lyric – ‘When you gaze at planet Earth from outer space, does it wipe that stupid look from off your face?’

Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino
The album’s title track summarizes all the key motifs of the new album with a jazzy feel on the keys whilst Turner croons and Helders plays a haunting ghostly rhythm on the synths. As hinted by the name, it sounds like a tune which could be used for a hotel or perfume advertisement. Just think of a Bowie vocal with the haunting sound effects on ‘Potion Approaching and ‘Dance Little Liar.’

Best lyric – ‘I’ve been on a bender back to that prophetic esplanade where I ponder all the questions but just manage to miss the mark.’

Golden Trunks
‘Golden Trunks’ is the closest work to ‘Humbug’ and specifically recalls ‘Dance Little Liar.’ The song begins with a fuzzy distorted guitar bridge before leading into the same distorted vocal which recalls The Stones’ work on ‘Satanic Majesties Request.’ This leads into a funky solo as Turner switches his direction to Trump that is humorous but arguably eclipsed by ‘Pure Comedy.’

Best lyric – ‘The leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks. He’s got himself a theme tune. They play it for him as he makes his way to the ring.’

Four Out of Five
‘Four Out of Five’ is most definitely the best song of the album and one example where the combination of Turner’s wit and new direction really does pay off. Inspired by urban development, Turner basically hypothesises that the ‘lunar space’ would only be soon built over mankind with hotels and fancy restaurants. The song is the closest continuation of ‘AM’ and begins with a similar to guitar loop to ‘Knee Socks’ and falsettos to ‘High.’ AM’s best qualities have always been the lyrics and percussion which really shines when Helders and Turner are fighting for the spotlight. Listen and you can hear it – it’s a proverbial tug-of-war, a Tom and Jerry sketch as Turner is the mouse as his gob churns out eloquent imagery and Helders is the cat closely chasing after him just fighting for the attention. Just look out for this competitive dynamic in ‘Pretty Visitors’, ‘Secret Door’ and ‘The View from the Afternoon.’ The song then leads into a surreal combination of psychedelic high-pitched backing vocals and a vaudeville tune which sounds like a nursery rhyme that is reminiscent of Bowie’s work on ‘Hunky Dory.’ Despite criticising Turner trying to sound clever with technology, he also somehow turns Neil Postman’s theoretical concept of the ‘Information Action Ratio’ into a chorus which will be sang across arenas on their upcoming tours. I’m just ready for Gilles Deleuze’s theory of ‘becoming-machine’ and Debord’s theory of the ‘derive’ for their next album.

Best lyric – ‘Cute places keep popping up since the exodus, it’s all getting gentrified. I put a taqueria on the roof.’

The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Flip
Inspired by Turner stumbling on a YouTube video entitled ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Flip’, the song is about clickbait and the temptation to read useless material. The song continues the psychedelic feel of the Humbug-esque tunes so far and begins with a slowed-down group vocal of ‘push the button.’ This is followed by some average imagery about YouTube and the iCloud. The least remarkable song of the album and most definitely the closest to a filler.

Lyrics – ‘There are things that I just cannot explain to you, And those that I hope I don’t ever have to.’

Science Fiction
‘Science Fiction’ is another tune which could have been included on TLSP’s ‘Everything That You’ve Come to Expect.’ The song combines a descending piano tune that sounds like a vaudeville tune in a music hall with the ghostly sound effects of a 1920s silent horror film. Turner is on fine lyrical form as he self-deprecatingly picks apart the process of writing as he attempts to produce a line that will stay with his lover ‘the way that science fiction does.’ This one was allegedly inspired by Fellini’s 8/12 as Turner wanted to apply Fellini’s criticism of filmmaking to his own craft. ‘Science Fiction’ could be summarized as ‘Humbug’s haunting psychedelic nature combined with the jazzy classicism of ‘Everything You’ve Come to Expect.’

Best lyric – ‘I want to make a simple point about peace and love, but in a sexy way where it’s not obvious.’

She Looks Like Fun
‘She Looks Like Fun’ is my second favourite and further exemplifies that Turner’s ingenuity lies in simple songs about relationships. It’s the most glam-rock tune of the record and wouldn’t sound out of place on a T-Rex record. He continues the Pynchon-esque style of namedropping random American cultural texts as he moves from Wayne Manor to namedropping Charles Bukowski. The vocals recall Bowie’s soulful work on ‘Young Americans’ but is also foregrounded by a soulful guitar bridge and some genuinely hilarious self-deprecating takes on his recent behaviour. This is very much the album’s ‘Arabella’ due to both the hilarious creative lyrics and glam-rock feel.

Best lyric – ‘I’m so full of shite, I need to spend less time stood around in bars waffling on to strangers all about martial arts.’

Batphone
‘Batphone’ is probably the other filler alongside ‘Monster Truck Flip.’ He again takes aim at technology’s omnipresence with some genuinely weird images and is presented alongside Helders on the synths. Turner provides another impressive vocal performance but there is nothing really remarkable which hasn’t been presented in other innovative ways earlier on the album.

Best lyric – ‘I launch my fragrance called ‘Integrity. I sell the fact that I can’t be bought.’

The Ultracheese
‘The Ultracheese’ is guaranteed to close the sets of all upcoming shows as Turner reflects yet again about cheating on a former flame. He continues with the lounge-y feel of the earlier songs but it really does reach its peak during the second chorus. It’s Turner’s best vocal performance of the album and you really have to admire how much his voice has improved over the last five years. The song is the least like any of AM’s earlier work which sounds like a combination of ‘Que Que Sera Sera’ and ‘All the Young Dudes.’ The most Bowie-esque of the album as the slow-tempo has a vaudeville quality that again wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘Hunky Dory.’

Best lyric – ‘Got freaked out by a knock on the door when I hadn’t been expecting one. Didn’t that used to be part of the fun?’

Rating – 3/5

Tranquillity Base is a commendable, ambitious project but really suffers due to not providing anything which hasn’t been done or said before. It pretty much feels like AM’s own side-project and could thus be further characterised as just a ‘Last Shadow Puppets’ LP marketed as an ‘Arctic Monkeys’ album.

Aaron James Stretch

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