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The New Arctic Monkeys Album Is The Bravest One So Far

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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”.

Also read: titleThese 7 Songs Show How Far Independent Pakistani Music Has Come

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.

This article first appeared at the Rock Street Journal.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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