With Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Arctic Monkeys Have Finally Blended with The Last Shadow Puppets
From the lush opening notes of “Star Treatment”, you know the trip you’re about to take with Arctic Monkeys will land you in a wild and foreign territory. The first song sets the strange tone for the rest of the band’s latest album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, released just two days ago — and what strangeness it is.
Arctic Monkeys’ latest opus has already been labelled “divisive”, with many of the outlets and fans zero-ing on the seemingly drastic change of sound from 2013’s AM. Some have called it polarizing, some have called it weird, and certainly, it is the latter. But an honest look at all the works associated with Arctic Monkeys, and frontman Alex Turner in particular, makes their latest offering nothing less than long foreseen, and long overdue.
Until 2009, Arctic Monkeys had been one of the figureheads of that very particular brand of indie rock emanating from the UK in the 2000s. They came onto the scene like glorious underdogs, their popularity and later success almost entirely credited to the early days of music file sharing.
Then Humbug happened, and for a while, a lot of their supporters were left with a sense of pause: while Arctic Monkeys were still amazing, that certain tongue-in-cheek youthfulness that had characterized Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (2006) and Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007) was almost entirely gone. It was replaced with a more polished kind of irony, a sardonic edge that permeated almost every song. In the years since, the album has been rightfully recognized as the haunting masterpiece it is, and only further rallied people behind the boundless talent displayed, and the impressive potential still to come.
If people expected Arctic Monkeys to continue Humbug’s tendencies with Suck It and See (2011), they were sorely disappointed. It was a further change in sound, although less of an innovation than a fusing together of many different inclinations the band had already shown: their earlier albums’ urgency and unbridled energy, with sometimes musing and melancholy tinges, the sort Turner had shown in the soundtrack he wrote for the indie film Submarine (2010). And in this sense, by the very fact that it was like a mosaic, the album stood completely on its own.
AM (2013) is what undoubtedly broke the band into the mainstream, garnering them legions of new fans and a wider international audience, as it should have. It was the culmination of a newfound confidence — these were no longer the frenetic, tenderfooted youths of early days, and it showed in the sophisticated way they presented themselves, in the swagger evident in every one of their stellar songs. AM was Arctic Monkeys’ graduation album, the testament to a different era in their lives. The effects were quickly felt: the album (and/or songs from it) was nominated for many awards, including the Brits, the Mercury, the Grammys and NME.
But with a meteoric level of popularity comes the inevitable scrutiny, and the band has not been immune to that. They — and Alex Turner in particular — have been called everything from “pretentious” to “self-aware”, and not in a complimentary way. Their lyrics have always had an edge of biting wit, the eye turned outward to comment on and criticize life’s most frustrating mysteries (love, often, being one of them).
It would be tempting to dismiss this as the natural fatigue that audiences experience, especially when certain artists are talked about constantly, but the fact that some of it may have been grounded in echoes of truth made that impossible. Along with the musical changes, the band had also undergone a stylistic one, opting for sleek suits and gelled-back retro hairstyles instead of their jeans and leather jackets. Sleeker, more adult, the look seemed to plead.
And then of course, in 2014, as the band accepted Album of the Year at the Brit Awards, Turner made a somewhat rambling speech in which he declared that “rock wasn’t dead”, before literally dropping the mic and walking off.
These talks about the band’s smugness or the legitimacy of their edginess rings especially harsh for Arctic Monkeys: after all, these are the selfsame people who once told others to “[g]et off the bandwagon and put down the handbook”, sang about the tragic hilarity of “dickheads”, and lamented that “[t]here's only music, so that there's new ringtones”. Much of Arctic Monkeys’ earlier records focused on calling out egotistical jerks (see “Brianstorm” and "When the Sun Goes Down") who made a fool out of themselves by trying to be and sound clever. The idea that they might have become the very people they were criticizing was not just haunting: it was as if the would-be authentic evolution they had shown was nothing more than a cagey facade, a persona, hinting at fraudulence underneath.
And perhaps this is where my undying loyalty for Arctic Monkeys’ music helped me navigate the times that followed, and see through the seemingly opaque image they displayed in the years after AM. In truth, one need only take a longer look at the discography up until that album to see that not much had actually changed (cryptic acceptance speech and stylistic switches put aside): namely phenomenal songwriting and versatility of sound.
In between the albums with the band, Alex Turner went off and did other stuff on the side: and this is where things get interesting.
The Last Shadow Puppets, a side project with Miles Kane, erstwhile frontman of the Rascals, is at first glance everything Arctic Monkeys is not: namely overtly nostalgic, languorous, even shamelessly romantic at times. Where Arctic Monkeys balances jabs at society with commentary on the state of everyday life, The Last Shadow Puppets’ songs tend to be deeply, deeply introspective, bordering on the surreal. Their two albums are hypnotic, blending Kane’s ever-present intensity with Turner’s profound charisma, their lyrics strange and trippy like only they could make them.
The Age of the Understatement (2008) was a journey into sounds more closely reminiscent of 1970s’ crooners like Serge Gainsbourg: stunningly beautiful and arrestingly sad. Is it any surprise, then, that a year later, Arctic Monkeys’ darkest album at the time, Humbug, still carried traces of that atmosphere?
Everything You've Come to Expect (2016) further pushed that vintage edge, diving nose-deep into baroque pop and almost cinematic arrangements. 2016 was also a significant year for Turner: he describes being gifted a piano, on which he will later start to write the songs in Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
As Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino has come along, thus, the question isn’t how we got here, but rather: how didn’t we get here sooner?
A few years ago, it would have been easy to dissociate both projects from Arctic Monkeys’ very particular brand of rock. By looking not only at the gradual shift the latter has done, in terms of image and sound, but also at the way both of Turner’s projects slalom between each other, one sees that the switch is not abrupt at all.
Listening to all of The Last Shadow Puppets and Arctic Monkeys’ discography in order is like hearing one teeter toward the other; the smooth, mournful character shown in one blending into the harsher, darker one displayed in the latter. Arctic Monkeys have indeed become more sophisticated, abandoning the garage, punk/indie-rock sound of the 2000s, and embracing the transition wholeheartedly.
But in truth: Turner’s music has been getting weirder and weirder, and this album is only making those of us who haven’t noticed pay attention. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino didn’t come out of a vacuum: it has been a long time coming.
If AM was the graduation album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is the easy resting-on-the-laurels of an adult who has stopped caring about others’ expectations, stopped trying to prove himself: and in that sense, perhaps it is more honest than AM was in 2013. I no longer sense those inklings of posturing I couldn’t help but detect in the years surrounding the previous album; and for that, and that only, I acquiesce to everything Arctic Monkeys proposes in 2018.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a foray into science-fiction and futuristic motifs that simultaneously point to a preoccupation with what is to come, and an obsessive look inward, at what we threaten to leave behind when we change. It is more than strange: at times, it is almost arresting. The singer’s vocals are altered more than once, most notably in “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” and “She Looks Like Fun”, in ways that make him sound decidedly unlike himself.
The allusions to popular culture are different from the easy, casual ones the band always liked throwing around. Here, they are more profound, almost inside joke-y. The music dances between old-fashioned, quasi kitsch melodies and instrumentation from yesteryear: it sounds outdated on purpose.
Still, despite the jarring changes, the album also sees the band giving latent nods to their previous selves: there are dashes of Humbug and AM in the heavy undertones of certain songs (“Batphone”, “American Sports” are particular standouts), shades of Suck It and See in “She Looks Like Fun” and maybe some Submarine-era Turner in “The Ultracheese”; if you squinted hard enough, you could even see “One Point Perspective” at home in Favourite Worst Nightmare’s mellow B-sides.
Meanwhile, others like “Science Fiction”, “Star Treatment” and “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” (my unabashed favorite) could have been hand-picked out of any of The Last Shadow Puppets’ records. All of this, of course, blended into something very new, very much its own thing; because indeed, while one might recognize Turner’s keen witty banter (even if it goes off into tangents sometimes), it’s clear that what is revealed to us in Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is very unique as well: he seems to have let go of something that was weighing him down, and it shows in the newfound levity and carelessness that pierces through the strangeness. Whereas he would once tell a partner who was rightfully leaving him that “to tear apart the ties that bind/Perhaps 'fuck off' might be too kind”, he’s now growling that “I'm in no position to give advice, I don't want to be nice/And you know that”.
But more than anything: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino shows a band who has gathered all their scattered personas into one, coherently weird and weirdly coherent display; and if it is at times off-putting, it’s because this is what Arctic Monkeys, helmed by the chameleonic Alex Turner, have often been throughout the years: sometimes off-putting, always enthralling.
As I’ve grown alongside one of my favorite bands for the last 15+ years, I myself have had to make adjustments. I have had to let go of the fact that they are no longer those local Sheffield teenagers who wrote dirty garage rock tunes and played loose indie riffs to a loyal few. I keep having to check my astonishment every time I take some perspective, remind myself that these are grown men for whom much has changed, which is funny — audacious even —, considering that they are all older than me.
But this acceptance comes with a feeling of easy pride: I am okay with change. I am more than okay with it. I like artists who chuck people’s opinions of themselves out the window and do whatever the hell they want. I want artists who keep convincing me to stay with them on the ride, even if the detours we take aren’t initially fun: and that is because I can trust the destination, and know they will make it worth the wait.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino has been precisely that. Worth the wait. Worth the five years since the last Arctic Monkeys offering, and the last two since The Last Shadow Puppets graced us with their masterpiece.
It certainly is an adjustment: and I, for one, am smitten.