By Medha Singh for Rock Street Journal:
God knows what went through Arctic Monkeys’ manager Ian McAndrews’ mind when he gifted Alex Turner a Steinway, perhaps it was providence, some cosmic joke, or just sheer eccentricity, but it has given us, what is possibly the bravest Monkeys’ album so far.
Publications can’t afford to waste a day before some other press puts down the coolest, newest take on the freshest album before all others, there is constant pressure on them to be unique, edgy and offer perspectives that no other publication does, and often this can be to the detriment of artists. The Arctic Monkeys’ all new “Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino” is one such album, it pointedly resists such casual, hurried listening.
Getting better with repeated listens, it dares to rarefy its audience, and shows others the door, that’s just it. That’s all there is to it. The more you listen to it, the more it pulls you into its ornate, dizzying, otherworldly vacuum, the complicated design becomes clearer, the longer you look at it, it’s like chaos magic; TBH&C welcomes you into its own universe, off somewhere in space, a grand sci-fi narrative where gentrification and technology tumefy on the arid surface of the moon, because that’s all that the upper, technologically advanced classes can do to a new place (“Golden Trunks” refers to the ‘leader of the free world’, one wonders if it’s his casinos the Monkeys are parodying), this is the apparent extent of the vision of the top 1%, and Turner’s satire is far too classy and subtle at this point to ignore.
Monkeys’ fans need to be reminded that “Star Treatment”, the opening track, and “Everything You’ve Come to Expect” by Turner’s second baby, two man supergroup with Miles Kane, The Last Shadow Puppets, were written around the same time on the same piano, which is why it makes little sense to find things in common between the Monkeys of the past, and now. It’s hilarious how miffed beer swinging #brodudes are with the Monkeys’ new album, flinging some hefty opprobrium their way. Alex Turner needs to be understood as a solo artist, this is the key to unlocking the intended listening experience.
New aesthetic choices, along with his politics have taken a left turn, which is a wonderful congruence. The space travel storyline, as many have picked up, is a gestural genuflection to David Bowie, one may safely guess. Though it’s worth pointing out that Turner has borrowed an inter-genre navigational tendency from David Bowie as well. Yet, it’s still Turner’s own thing, replete with our present-world dilemmas, on the question of technology (“information-action ratio”), God (“It’s time for my weekly chat/with God/on video call”), and friendship (“I’ve still got pictures of friends on the wall… perhaps I shouldn’t have called/that thing friendly at all”).
At first glance TBH&C has appeared ‘difficult’ and ‘unlistenable’ to some, given the ‘nonsensical’ lyrics, and to some, it’s a surprise that the album exists at all. Contrarily, it might just be the best thing they’ve ever done. If this really is the last Monkeys’ album, it’s a fitting adieu. There is a palpable stylistic shift, new compositional intelligence, which shows us a maturing Turner. Although we know TBH&C almost ended up as his solo album, it just couldn’t have, because he loves being in a band. This is important to note, as it’s commendable that the boys (Cook, O’ Malley, Helders) have receded a bit into the background, to highlight Turner’s mellifluous crooning and jazzy piano bits, peppered across the album, especially on the groovy title track. Each element of the band is faithfully attuned to the final intention of the work. That’s what makes or breaks a rock group, in the end.
TBH&C still retains some of the old Monkey-esque romantic woefulness, and earnest longing in “The Ultracheese”, which is still in the “Cornerstone”, “Piledriver Waltz” and “Love is a Laserquest” territory.
While on the previous albums, Turner consistently employs coltish irony in the lyrics, a way into joking self deprecation, flouting common stereotypes about old chestnut rock performers, he never fails to include the sincere mood of cinema in his poetry, redeeming himself. In their previous stadium rock monster “AM”, “Knee Socks” opens with the lines, “like the beginning of Mean Streets/You can be my baby“, referring to the Ronettes song at the starting of the cult Scorsese film Mean Streets. One could say, there were clues in the last album(s) where Turner sought to break from the realism of life, and escape into the fantasy of music, cinema, and literature (Turner has acknowledged John Cooper Clarke previously, and recently David Foster Wallace). It’s apparent now. In TBH&C, Turner admits in a radioX interview, that cinema has played a role in the making of the new 11 track space truck—especially Jean Pierre Meleville’s “Le Samourai” (1967) and “Le Cercle Rouge” (1970); for these aesthetic decisions TBH&C has rightly been seen as a sudden left turn.
“AM” (2013) embraced, and caricatured the trope of the rockstar rather self consciously, easy to see, and easy to digest. On the other hand, TBH&C aims to discard a past self — the jokes have bored the joker. Those looking for a cohesiveness, a coherence, a thread, some unity between the Arctic Monkeys of “Suck it and See” and “AM”, won’t be able to find it in TBH&C, without considering the work Turner did with Miles Kane, while the Monkeys went on hiatus after “AM”.
The Last Shadow Puppets seems to have given Alex Turner (and Miles Kane, surely) a boost of confidence, in that he makes intuitive choices more courageously, resisting the basic songwriting structure in TBH&C, to accommodate the autonomy his Steinway has begun to demand. It may be a clue into his life, too, a glance at how he is solidifying, as a musician. Turner is far too skilled an artist to be able to stay true to his punk roots at this point, and perhaps, it’s fair to let him be so, and engage with the songs the way they want us to: completely (or completely sober, who knows).
Someone real, a palpable human being behind the humor, satire and irony is emerging out of Turner’s new work, lyrically more earnest (the satire is now in the narrative, no longer in the speaker), he honors his past, and his younger self in the lyrics, “I just wanted to be one of the strokes/look at the mess you’ve made me make” right at the beginning of the opening track “Star Treatment”. At the same time, the album is an affirmative send off to the old, caddish, young boy Turner used to be. A last kiss, to sweetly move on. No more loitering about Rotherham or Hunter’s Bar sardonically observing the crowd, because there’s nothing else to do. Turner won’t validate the listener’s desire to look back upon it either, the album gathers a momentum towards transcendent, transformative artistic growth. They will never go down as a nostalgia band exactly because of this.
The Monkeys could have just given us another heavy, stadium rock Behemoth like “AM” and cashed in on predictable market returns, but they made a stylistic decision. It’s a matter of enormous artistic integrity to make that choice, given that the possibility of it becomes rarer for artists as time goes on. We all peddle shit to create a safe resting bed for our true expressions, and for Turner this is it.
They’re just not going to make straight up rock ‘n’ roll for drunk teenagers anymore because the songwriter no longer is one, he’s a rich rock star. To expect him to be banging on about being heartbroken, chasing women, eating crisps is a bit near sighted. The band moved to LA, and have been living there a good few years.
The Monkeys took a detour, and a real artistic risk with TBH&C. Replacing the guitars for piano, knowing money may suffer because of it, and definitely pulling it off (it went to number 1 in the UK charts, beating Liam Gallagher’s 2017 comeback “As You Were”, as the fastest selling vinyl LP of the past 25 years). Turner speaks about his father and the jazz influences he’s had, he acknowledges his peers, the album’s got a space travel storyline, creating its own lore. For all its subtleties and decisions, you can’t say it’s not a rewarding listen. He’s begging for you to engage with his work more cerebrally, and if an artist can’t ask you to listen to him from the summit of Parnassus, then no one can.
It isn’t that much of a stylistic shift, if you consider the baroque style embellishments, with all of its curlicues in “The Age of Understatement”, “Dream Synopsis” and “Everything You’ve Come to Expect”, by The Last Shadow Puppets. Turner confidently takes that risk with the Monkeys to intentionally disorient our listening experience. No artist wants to be predictable, in the end, reserving a right to surprise himself. It should be taken for granted the Arctic Monkeys knew well before, that they were going to put out a divisive album, because how could they not? They’ve been around long enough to predict what works and doesn’t.
One refers here, to TBH&C’s affective intentions, he’s asking you to look at a ponderous, mature musician and poet. Turner harps on about rock star boredom and ennui with self critical humor, which is important, and rare. We’ve not seen this from Noel or Liam Gallagher all through Oasis or their post breakup solo careers, so far. In fact, the latter embraced it to the point that it has become vulgar (Playing on their working class roots, in their interviews, not having anything to with the working class for damn near a quarter of a century). Social media makes us all far too conscious than we were in the nineties, and that’s something often dealt with in TBH&C. Turner’s become a better writer, musician and artist over the years. It follows that his work is ornate, more lavish, from this vantage point. It wouldn’t be wise of us to expect him to stick to his punk roots.
It may be well worth considering, that this departure from “AM”, is not so much a leap, as a sidestep. People are turned off by Turner’s coldness, but he doesn’t want you to feel too much of yourselves, rather come out and see what’s around you, after all. Aesthetically TBH&C is nothing like “AM”, though Alex Turner’s artistic trajectory is clearly visible in the work with The Last Shadow Puppets’ three albums. Maybe it’s just about finding that piece of the puzzle in the end.