Review Summary: Arctic Monkeys tell the punchline after they have told the joke
Alex Turner has always been a fantastic lyricist when he put in the effort. More than that, like a young ornery Morrissey, he can do the delicate balancing act of being both funny and heart-rending in the same sentence, each emotion informing rather than cancelling out the other. His white-hot wit put Arctic Monkeys on the map in the first place, and in today's sci-fi spins on the crushing grind of showbiz we can still hear echoes of the vitriol in "Fake Tales of San Francisco". But we quickly realised that the laughs hid a core of feelings pretty fucking strongly felt (don't they always？) in career highs like "505", "Love is a Laserquest" and "Cornerstone". There was a man stripped of his humour, wry slang and observational genius, much the same way Damon Albarn had been stripped of his about a decade earlier with the likes of "Tender" and "Out of Time". You had nothing left but the bare and slightly cheesy beating heart, beamed directly to your car radio and listening appliances. Having traversed the rocky plains of observational humour and raw emotion, where was left to go？
It's not hard to interpret the thickly layered irony of "Star Treatment" as a futuristic twist on, well, what Alex Turner might imagine his future to be – a heavy-drinking washed-up rock star, reminiscing on the days of "two shows a day four times a week / easy money". Turner's vocals, in their finest form, slink from a flawless Bowie imitation - hair down to there / impressive moustache
- to harmony-laden falsetto not a million miles off his friend Josh Homme, another brilliant rockstar in danger of fading away rather than burning out. Falling from grace is clearly on the guy's mind, and like any self-respecting self-deprecator, the first thing he knows to do is to write about it. Is it that hard to picture lines like "I'm a big name in deep space, ask your mates / but golden boy's in bad shape" being written in the backroom of some overseas venue on the end of an exhaustive year's tour？
Even for a band who've managed to reinvent themselves more or less with every album, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino
sees the Sheffield lads match pace with Turner's lyrics to take a dive down the rabbit hole. Jazzy chord vamps dominate "Star Treatment", an ingeniously difficult choice of opener that will divide most into love/hate within a matter of seconds. From there the album goes on to resemble something like Hunky Dory
as written by Ziggy Stardust on a thirty-year anniversary tour of his lounge pop chart-topper. "Golden Trunks" is a fuzzy psych-jam which sounds like The Beach Boys' "Feel Flows" filtered through a dose of Abbey Road
harmonies, while "The World's First Ever Monster Truck Flip" has a touch of Pet Sounds
with its ornate, vintage percussion. The band are in fine form even as they step out of the spotlight, with synthesisers, organs, baritone guitar and other textural touches constantly hovering in the periphery. With no crunchy guitars to fill up the mix, O'Malley's basswork is the best it's ever been, anchoring all this sci-fi nonsense to something both earthly and indisputably funky. Discerning in all this where the space-age future rockstar ends and Alex Turner begins is a head-spinning task, fiction and real intertwined along knotty mobius strips of melodies which resolutely avoid radio hooks.
A large part of this positivity stems from my sense of relief that Arctic Monkeys managed to sidestep their slow descent into bland radio rock. In full awareness of the dangers of revisionism, it's not stretching too far to view the post-Favourite Worst Nightmare
albums as a band grappling with sudden success by alternately emulating and distancing themselves from idols and influences. There's Queens of the Stone Age worship on Humbug
; sepia-toned dream pop straight from your youth and the Submarine
soundtrack on Suck it and See
; the bleary self-loathing of the Weeknd over Black Sabbath-lite riffs on AM
. Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino
is almost a complete sidestep, comparable if anything just to the mournful digital-age requiem "Hong Kong" by Gorillaz (a lament by a fake band for the real world - wonderful), but one thing it takes from its predecessor is the glacially paced grooves, rendered here as the deliberate tempos of a half-drunk lounge singer in the gentrified neighbourhood of outer space. It's the relief of new ground being broached, sure, but it's more than that. It's the way this album compels me to feel like I'm hearing a major songwriting voice arriving for the first time, even though his arguable best work is ten years in the rear view. A lot of us will pine for the days of piss and vinegar, "A Certain Romance" and "From the Ritz to the Rubble" era of Alex Turner. But this isn't a world where too many are concerned with chavs and angry bouncers anymore, and to his credit, Alex Turner has only evolved with it.