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May 16, 2018

ALEX TURNER HITS HIS JOHN LENNON STRIDE ON TRANQUILITY BASE HOTEL & CASINO

By Semtex In MUSIC

We know that there are other band members in Arctic Monkeys, sure. But, as is always the case, the lead singer takes the spotlight in all ways. While Alex Turner has engaged in other musical pursuits à la Damon Albarn throughout his time in Arctic Monkeys (both solo work and Last Shadow Puppets with Lana Del Rey enthusiast Miles Kane), it is his first love that he will always return to. And Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (2018) is perhaps his most grandiose love letter of all, all melodic piano notes and gentle coos that serve to add ironic tinge to all the ills of humanity he speaks of. And after the harshness of 2013’s AM, with its accusatory singles, “R U Mine?,” “Do I Wanna Know?” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?,” their sixth studio album is a welcome change. The kind of change that John Lennon arguably made after chucking Cynthia and going all Hare Krishna. Similarly, both Turner and Lennon found success at the onset of their twenties, a scary time for men to have influence, fame and money. Perhaps that is why, eventually, they must come back down to earth with the arrival of their thirties, exploring other avenues for meaning apart from pussy, money, weed. In Turner’s case, perhaps part of that exploration came with the gift of a piano for his thirtieth birthday from the band’s manager, Ian McAndrew (kind of makes Brian Epstein look like a do-nothing, doesn’t it?). As a result, the entire sonic composition of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is awash in the sort of chords that sound like a re-branding of the sound found on The Beatles’ “In My Life” or “Let It Be” (granted, both McCartney songs, but still).

The fitting opener, “Star Treatment,” finds Turner reflecting on the career of the band with the tongue-in-cheek opening line, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make.” The comparison to the New York band that launched to the forefront of the NYC music scene reinvigoration in the early 00s is not without its laden meaning. For The Strokes, too, have been accused of losing their touch, jumping the shark worse than the Cardi B album that everyone is praising. That’s sort of what happens when you start as out as a band with a certain sound that is tailor-made for a zeitgeist that is fleeting. And the early 00s were nothing if not a zeitgeist. One that Arctic Monkeys have managed to transcend unlike those who rose up around the same time (Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse come to mind). Just as The Beatles broke out of the mold they were fitted to as an obsequious boy band promising to hold your hand, love you forever and all that rot. Arctic Monkey’s evasion of the past that built them into what they are has not become solidified until now, however, with this album. Just as it was solidified for The Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). The dual in its implications title of “Star Treatment” finds its double meaning in Turner’s fame and the distortion of the light of a star that happens from a scientific standpoint—just as it does in the public’s conviction that they “know everything” about a celebrity.

With a similar auditory tone to the one that punctuated Turner’s solo work for the Submarine Soundtrack (2010), “Star Treatment” then transitions into “One Point Perspective” (which some critics of the album would argue is all Turner has with regard to his lyrics), an introspective ditty about the interruption of one’s childhood dreams by the other ideas life has in mind, hence the lyric, “By the time reality hits, the chimes of freedom fell to bits/The shining city on the fritz/They come out of the cracks, thirsty for blood.” Those blood-thirsters also sought to destroy Lennon, too. The man with a perpetual dream characterized by utopian idealism. That ultimately led to the mac daddy of blood-thirsters killing him. 

The mid-tempo “American Sports” finds Turner’s vocals at their most knowing condescension—again, this, from a sonic standpoint, is all Lennon. That condescension holds the key to Turner’s exploration of the potential future of the moon’s residents through the lens of people’s current frivolous fixations (American sports being one of the peak examples of mindless obsessions). Singing, “And I never thought in a million years that I’d meet so many Lolas,” Turner speaks of homogeneity and basicness in a way that doesn’t make the future look much brighter either.

The relatively uptempo in its slowness “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” feels like its premise could be adapted into a Stanley Kubrick film (of course, only after his cloning has been successful). As Turner tells us all the features of “the spa of the future” (there’s that word again, future), we immediately envision the implications of the scene he’s painting: “Jesus in the day spa, filling out the information form…Technological advances really bloody get me in the mood/Pull me in close on a crisp eve, baby, kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob.” It’s almost “I Am the Walrus”-esque at times (also a song with absurdist imagery that includes “Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come”). Again, dripping with sarcasm as only Turner can (and Lennon could), his intonation infers that all that destiny might hold at the rate we’re going is rather grim.

One of the songs closest to having any amount of the same vibe as “vintage” Arctic Monkeys, “Golden Trunks” possesses a touch of guitar before being overpowered by the piano. However, Turner continues down his overtly political path with the observation, “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.” Elsewhere, however, Turner can’t help but revert to what’s always worked well for the band in the past: amorous fantasization. This comes in the form of, “Last night when my psyche’s subcommittee sang to me in its scary voice, you slowly dropped your eyelids/When true love takes a grip, it leaves you without a choice.” At least it’s nice to know that even while thoughts of the stupidity and pointlessness of humanity’s trajectory plague Turner, he still can’t help but think about the oldest source of inspiration of all: love. So it was for Lennon even when he sang of turning off your mind, relaxing and floating downstream. Mainly because to not do so in a world like this is to be driven to madness.

“Four Out of Five”—presumably the critical score Turner wants for this album—also offers some of the old traces of the signature Arctic Monkeys sound as our boy waxes about the pressures of getting well-rated with each new album, in addition to pleasing the always fickle fans that make him see the possibility of an end for his career in sight. Oh British men, so dainty and sensitive. “Four Out of Five” also further sets the stage for the location of the eponymous hotel and casino, a place where, as Turner lulls, you can “come and stay with us, it’s such an easy flight/Cute new places keep on popping up/Since the exodus, it’s all getting gentrified/I put a taqueria on the roof, it was well-reviewed/Four stars out of five, and that’s unheard of.” The addition of Turner’s use of a phrase from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), “the information action ratio,” imbues the tableau of the hotel with even more sci-fi horror. As Postman’s book, which references the go-to dystopian novels 1984 (1949) and Brave New World (1931), foretold, the idea behind the information action ratio pertains to humans’ access to all the information in the world (i.e. the internet), yet being so crippled by how much there is they end up doing nothing with it because the sheer density of information available has made it lose all meaning. Lennon freedom fighting indeed—liberate your mind from fake news.

“The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Flip”—the title of which sealed the internet’s endless meme-ing of how the band went about naming its songs for this album—has all the makings of an ideal track for backing the plot point to a sci-fi movie. For the narrative of it describes people’s fascination with their devices the way, in the past, we once had a fascination for people. As it happens, Turner’s decision to call the song “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Flip” stemmed from “a verbatim news story I was unable to resist clicking on about a year ago, and I was unable to resist naming a song after it. It was laid out for me. We’re just living in a world where they’re flipping monster trucks forward.” So basically, “More brain shrinking moving images.”

On that note, “Science Fiction,” the track name that best sums up the overall aural nature of this record is a moody and undercuttingly ominous offering that speaks of a “future colony” (maybe one run by Elon Musk and Grimes?) with, among other characters, “a swamp monster with a hard-on for creativity.” Still, Turner can’t help but let his romantic side shine through amid all this technological fraughtness as he declares, “I want to stay with you my love, the same way science fiction does.” But now that science is no longer really “fiction” in the world where Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino exists, it seems that religion is the new source of nefariousness, where in the ancient past it was viewed with the level of reverence that technology and science is—ergo the question, “Religious iconography giving you the creeps?”

Going for a more analog motif with “She Looks Like Fun,” Turner returns to a subject that has always served him well in the past: women. More specifically, his current girlfriend, Taylor Bagley, who deleted Instagram in January of this year after being harassed by Arctic Monkeys fans (Yoko Ono surely knows something about this kind of bullying). Thus, the concept Turner explores here is that of the alternate “characters” people create for themselves on the internet—for with the freedom of no tangible identity comes the freedom to spread as much hate and vitriol as one wants, for this is generally still frowned upon in real life. From the perspective of this type of internet troll, Turner sings, “Finally, I can share with you through cloudy skies every whimsical thought that enters my mind/There ain’t no limit to the length of dickheads we can be.” Turner also makes reference to Wayne Manor in this track, a nice tie-in to the second to last song of the album, “Batphone.”

Back to the futuristic in its retro 60s sci-fi interpretations of the future, “Batphone” is another slow tempo track that finds Turner ruminating on the dangers of this age called the present that we’re still billing as the future. But darling we’ve already been “sucked into a hole” (a smartphone referencing lyric that reminds one of MGMT’s “TSLAMP”) that there’s no coming back from. And yes, “life has become a spectator sport,” broadcast live from Twitter, Instagram and, even still, Facebook.

Concluding is the, yes, somewhat cheesy, “The Ultracheese.” Echoes of Elton John’s piano abilities punctuate a track that puts the final nail in the coffin of a theme that is more of a eulogy than a prophecy. We are mourning what we once called humanity and America under the guise of believing we can still stop what’s happened. And as Turner makes loose reference to fake friends on FB by remarking, “I’ve still got pictures of my friends on the wall/I might look as if I’m deep in thought, but the truth is I’m probably not. If I ever was,” he also speaks to the fact that maybe we were always this vacuous and technology has only made it easier and more acceptable to let that freak flag fly.

“But I haven’t stopped loving you once,” the last line of “The Ultracheese,” no longer refers to a flesh and blood person so much as one’s preoccupation with the devices that bring them technology. So there it is, the perfect album for a dystopian society that Lennon once had such utopian hopes for. That this is also Turner’s first go at co-producing an Arctic Monkeys album further adds to the uniqueness—the specialness, if you will—of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.

What’s more, while The New Statesman’s review might have been titled “Is This the Most Embarrassing Arctic Monkeys Album Yet?,” (the title was later changed, as music critics don’t want to stand too far apart from the general consensus) there can be no denying that the band has “matured.” Done that necessary evolution toward the more contemplative that The Beatles, too, had to engage in during and after their India phase. It just so happens that the flaring up of the internet is the Arctic Monkeys’ India.

The Beatles comparisons to Arctic Monkeys don’t stop with Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. You’ve even got something of a Stuart Sutcliffe figure in Andy Nicholson, the bass guitarist who left the band after their debut was released. A fool move, it would seem, in retrospect, but every musician has his reasons for breaking away from the band.

So sing us the song, Mr. Turner, you’re now the piano man. And a very Lennon-like one with the bifurcation of the themes of your career. In fact, one wonders if Lennon might have released some very similar work had he been alive in the current epoch, where peace is just another string of 0s and 1s that can only be downloaded.