By Johnny Papan
Every evolution of Arctic Monkeys is a seismic dance that regularly leaves listeners blissfully capsized with each subsequent release. It’s been an unflinching progression since the start, and their latest album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, is an intricate offering that is just as much a mind-seducing portrait as it is a musical odyssey.
In “Star Treatment,” the opening track, frontman Alex Turner immediately submerges your imagination into that of a ’50s hotel lounge decorated in neon lights and advanced technologies. Suited men vape along a crisp, mahogany bar. Women in sparkling dresses kiss the edge of their martini glass with plump lips painted in dark cherry reds and aquatic blues. Some may even face attempted romantic persuasions from lizard-esque extraterrestrial humanoids. It’s a jazzy, loungey, piano-laden tune that sets the tone for what will be discovered as an all-encompassing audio experience.
“I think you’re allowed to step outside your own experiences,” says Turner. “Songwriting gives you the scope to do that. There may have been a time 10 years ago where I wouldn’t have felt that way – everything was more like a diary entry at that point. But those days are long gone.”
Turner blends topics of science, religion, technology and politics into a soundscape that takes influence from the far past and layers it with atmospheric waves of the distant future. His sharp tongue illustrates a clear picture of the Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, a luxurious structure firmly planted exactly where Apollo 11 and thus, humankind, first landed on the moon in 1969. The rock upon which the hotel is donned gently floats through the star-speckled black of infinite space. We get to know the hotel’s inhabitants, seeing the likes of Jesus Christ relaxing at the spa, a wannabe government official prancing about in their knickers, and an advertiser spreading gospels of the four-star taqueria located on the building’s roof.
Turner did not go into songwriting sessions with any particular intentions or messages in mind, and instead allowed the musical phrases to draw words from him like a flowing river stream that escaped through the ink of his pen and spilled onto papers of pearly white. He adapted his vocal melodies to instrumentation like a curious chameleon modelling new skin-tones along the catwalk. The relationship of voice and instrument on this album is a unique contrast.
“For me, the songs seem to have a mind of their own to some extent. Everything seemed to decide it wanted to go into this sort of other world, I suppose,” Turner explains. “I think a lot of that is instinct at this point. There is not a moment where I’m sitting with a blank piece of paper and I’m thinking, ‘What kind of ride am I gonna take the kids on this time?’ It’s just sort of… yeah, instinctive.”
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, musically, deviates from its predecessor, the critically acclaimed AM. Rather than the guitar-heavy smashings and ambiances explored in the last album, as well as all those before it, Turner found himself gravitating towards the ivory of an instrument he’s never truly acquainted himself with, adding yet another layer of experimentation to his songwriting prowess.
“The places where my fingers fell on the piano made sounds that surprised me and encouraged me to move in a different direction than I would have if I was sitting there with an acoustic guitar,” Turner says. “The music seemed to suggest these melodies and lyrics to me. A lot of it came from the piano.”
Arctic Monkeys recorded the album as they were writing it. Intentionally or not, Tranquility could be considered some of Turner’s most thought-provoking work, especially when you link the pseudo-psychedelic lyrical stances to things happening around us today.
The song “She Looks Like Fun” touches on the subject of virtual reality, discussing a patron “plugging into” a non-existent New Years Eve party held at Wayne Manor, the home of Batman. “American Sports” sees a character’s virtual reality mask thrust them amidst a “parliament brawl.” Another character in the song speaks of FaceTime phenomena, using an emergency battery pack to ensure they don’t miss their “weekly chat with God on video call.”
“You sort of reveal a piece of something as you’re writing and recording it,” he says. “Then you find what you’re attracted to, scribble away a bit more of the dust and discover a bit more of the picture. Gradually, it becomes what it is. Each time you reveal another bit of it, it commits you to take the next step. I think it was Michelangelo who talked about the idea that there’s a block of marble, and the sculpture is already inside, and he’s just chipping away at the excess. [The album] is not quite that, but there’s something I like about that statement.”
In an interview with BBC Radio earlier this year, Turner felt there was a strange connection between Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino and Arctic Monkeys’ first album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the punkish debut that soared the band into mainstream populus, spearheaded by the garagey hit single “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” At the time, he couldn’t quite put his finger on the similarities between these two vastly different records. When questioned about it again, Turner responds:
“There’s something in the style of [Whatever People Say] and the style of [Tranquility] that felt quite direct in its lyrics. I was perhaps more willing to put myself across than I have been in the meantime in between,” Turner says. “The first couple of records, a lot of it was explicitly about exact renderings of real events that had happened. After that I sort of scurried away from that kind of style, or at least being that explicit about it. I got more ingested in other areas of writing lyrics, or trying to write in different ways. This time around, it seemed to have some of that essence of being as straight and direct as it was in the very beginning.”
Despite these similarities, it’s clear that the Arctic Monkeys of today are far different than that of the past. The boys in the band have matured, as did their creative outputs and tastes. They’re not the angsty teens they once were – they’ve grown, changed, almost to the point where Turner feels like he’s a completely different musical entity than that of his early days.
“It feels like we’re doing a cover or something when we play the first album, really,” Turner claims. “But that’s fine. I don’t hate doing that. It’s just come to the point where I play ‘Mardy Bum’ or something like that and it doesn’t even feel like mine anymore.”
Alex Turner is 32 years old. When Arctic Monkeys released their debut album, he was only 20. 12 years in the spotlight, and the band has released six albums, each holding up as a stand-alone album different than the others, yet sitting perfectly within Arctic Monkeys’ repertoire. The group is as eclectic as they are electric, and after releasing such an audio mindbend in Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, it’s interesting to see what comes next.
With all the talk of virtual reality, science fiction, and advanced technology, Turner was asked “If you could go back in time and tell your 20-year-old self one thing, and one thing only, what would it be?” Turner pondered for a moment.
“Kiss her before she gets in the cab.”
Arctic Monkeys play the Pacific Coliseum (Vancouver) on October 25.