Although it didn’t feel it back then, the mid 2000’s were a much simpler time. A time when people thought George Bush being the president of the free world was the scariest idea they could comprehend, a time when people who listened to guitar bands wore skin-tight jeans and people who didn’t, called people who did wear skin-tight jeans tossers. Now, if it were possible to travel back in time and inform people of the current president and play them the current offering from the then newly emerged, cleverly lyrical Northern teenagers Arctic Monkeys, the combination of the two might just blow their skinny-jean wearing minds.
The most challenging aspect of placing the new Arctic Monkeys album is down to the pre-existing idea of what their sixth highly anticipated album would sound like, and by anybody’s stretch of the imagination, Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino does not sound like anything anybody predicted – except for Alex Turner, it would seem. There has been much speculation about the album potentially becoming Turner’s solo record, one man and a piano brooding in a LA mansion. In many ways this is true, especially the importance of the piano which takes a prominent role across the record.
But there is much more to the music than just that, the record does exactly the opposite of what the band originally created when they caught the world’s attention following the release of their debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not way back in 2006. The fast pounding drum fills, the rigorous guitars and quick fire vocal delivery are stripped back to individual details. Each instrument sits within its own, often wide open space, weaving in and out of each other to only sit prominently when needed aloft Turner’s crooning vocals. Piano certainly seems more centric to the album, but there are still enough catchy guitar riffs to keep the purists satisfied. Importantly, the bass lines in particular are some of Nick O’Malley best and, in fact, they are often what hold the songs in coherence, skilfully gluing the patchwork of sections together.
Album opener ‘Star Treatment’ sets a tempo that will keep the pace for much of the eleven songs, beginning with one of many self-analysing lines: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make”. It’s these personal details mixed with themes of space and ‘golden age’ America in much of the album with words like “I’m a big man in deep space” followed by “but golden boys in a bad way” which keep a concept halfway between a sci-fi novel and an autobiography, like Kurt Vonnegut read aloud over a lounge piano.
Turner’s voice has certainly reached peak crooner, it is a genuinely impressive feat as he pulls off fluttering falsettos and Tenor. His melodies are always well crafted and almost never the obvious choice. The story goes that he spent months alone in his home studio recording them and you can see how this solitude has worked, the effects of isolation resulting in something that’s on the cusp of genius and insanity.
‘One Point Perspective’ begins with piano and drums that line up strangely well with Jay Z’s ‘Hard Knock Life’. The track sees Turner recite the ramblings of his own mind, “bear with me man, I lost my train of thought” he sings in his own developed accent sitting alongside what is also one of the best guitar lines of the record. ‘American Sports’ packs in a lot for a track under two-and-a-half minutes with the hook “and I never thought, not in a million years, that I’d meet so many lovers” delivered as though it could have sneaked on to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me’.
‘Golden Trunks’ could be seen as the albums mid dip, it follows five songs with a similar tempo and offers little extra to its predecessors to keep listeners engaged, the record clearly wasn’t written to be a simple people pleaser and this is probably the turn off point for the less invested listeners – somewhat unfortunate as it is followed by ‘Four out of Five’ which is the closest to a single and, in many ways the album standout. Featuring a perfect melodic hook, the type Turner has honed the ability to craft since realising he could use his voice to sing and not just rattle of his witty lyrics. It has a hip swinging groove with a Lennon Walls and Bridges feel and transitions an almost faultless piece of pop music.
‘She Looks Like Fun’ takes on a recurring theme of ever-changing tempos and sections, a montage of different ideas and sounds stuck together just about coherent enough to be a singular song. The track also sees some Turner’s most self analytical lyrics as he swoons “There ain’t no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be” before adding “I’m so full of shite, I need to spend less time stood around in bars waffling on to strangers” in what feels like a very personal self-evaluation and further adds to the overwhelming discussion that this album could easily have become a solo project for the Arctic Monkeys frontman.
The album closer ‘The Ultracheese’ is a self-summing title musically, but the lyrical content might be some of the most personal on the record as Turner cuts deep with the opening line “still got pictures of friends on the wall,” before a relatively sobering follow-up of “suppose we aren’t really friends anymore” which sums up an album which ultimately perpetuates his own frame of mind.
While his lyrics will undoubtedly be analysed with a fine-tooth comb in the coming weeks, it’s difficult to avoid a section in which Turner seemingly goes on to mock some of his persona as he warbles: “dressed as a fictional character from a place called America, in the golden age” on the album’s final track which is somewhat disguised by the closing time piano sing along. This seems the case repeatedly on Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino, Turner pouring through with very personal and self-questioning lyrics but cannot do so without disguising them with a barrage of fanfare music all hidden behind the slightly bizarre pantomime he’s built around himself.
Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is an album that is almost impossible to gauge, it takes several listens to take onboard the change of direction and several more to piece together the scrambled segments of which each song is made of – and even then it’s tricky to put a finger on the pulse. It feels as though the record could grow to be a defining transitional moment in an artist’s career, each song has a feeling that it holds more.
Delving deeper yet, the album can also sound at times a bit like somebody – a creative, free-flowing and artistic lyricist – who has spent too much time on their own in a fantasy world that doesn’t quite translate but it’s undeniable that Turner’s lyrics are both his most literal, fascinating and obscure to date.