From the record’s title alone, it is immediately apparent that this LP is going to be unlike anything we have heard from the Arctic Monkeys so far.
They have a huge legacy, with a sound that shifts from album to album. Their debut, Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not, which became the fastest selling debut in British music history, is a fast paced, highly charged record. Moving away from this style, they explored more melodic descriptions of love and heartbreak before arriving at AM in 2013, which enjoyed a huge commercial success with its dark and lustful tones. Five years on, they have finally released something new and the main questions that preceded it were how they would sound now? Would they rehash AM’s winning formula? No, of course not.
This album is a far cry from any that the Arctic Monkeys have released before. The most prevalent instrument is the keyboard, contrasting the guitar-laden approach they had taken thus far. It’s stripped back; across most tracks only simple melodies accompany Turners vocals, which have also undergone an upheaval, almost sounding like spoken word. Largely discarded also are single-ready crowd pleasers with memorable chorus’ and riffs; instead they have made a concept album.
“Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Neil Armstrong declared during the 1969 moon landing, which would be the site where humans walked on a different celestial body for the first time. The album’s concept is a very literal translation of this, setting up a resort upon the moon with Turner playing a character looking introspectively at humanity and himself. Indeed, the opening lyric, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes / now look at the mess you’ve made me make”, shows how far from their roots they have travelled, a world away from playing to small crowds in Sheffield bars.
And this is one of the issues that many fans are divided over. These cocky, funny, and unabashedly arrogant young men started out uncaring of success, shunning awards shows, and looking down upon crowd-pleasing artists. Eight years on from their debut, the release of AM showed grown rock stars, a completely different front to the one they portrayed in their earliest days, leading to shouts from some fans that they had sold-out. And now with the new record, we have a new face again; relatable in its loneliness and vulnerability, but more remote than ever.
“It is hard to believe they would have turned to social commentary and politics for inspiration. But here we are”
It would be naïve to them to still be singing about slipping past the bouncer into a club. Listening to their debut though, it is hard to believe that they would have turned to social commentary and politics for new musical inspiration. But here we are. In nearly every song, Turner sings about his mistrust of the rapid usurpation of technology and social media. His character sits in their lunar hotel, looking at humanity viewing each other through their screens, as it changes how we interact and emote, before ironically turning to the internet himself to help answer his questions: “I want an interesting synonym to describe this thing / that you say we are all grandfathered in / I’ll use the search engine”. In 2005, Alex Turner was taking a “Topshop princess” home, now he is staring at his ‘Batphone’, waiting for it to light up with a message from the one he is falling for.
‘Golden Trunks’ delves into the political world; it includes the quite fantastic lyric “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”. In a sense this echoes their previous style, comedic and witty, but more poncey - this new flowery cynicism is shown again in ‘American Sports’. Turner bemoans politicians “taking the truth and making it fluid”- a round-about way of saying ‘fake news’.
Alex Turner is a clever man, some of his lyrics are truly beautiful and resonate with the listener. However, at what point does it become too much? This new prose-like style contains so many references to famous works and some lines are so pompous it makes you wonder if he had a thesaurus beside him as he wrote. It is an issue he addresses throughout the album, that it may “end up too clever for its own good”. And despite the flooring arrogance, it’s difficult to disagree.
Undoubtedly, the hardest thing to swallow about the album is its lack of instrumental prowess. This bare sound is not what they are known for, and this latest venture feels as though the rest of the band have been sorely underutilised. When imagining it live, I struggle to see anything other than Turner taking centre stage, with Nicholas O’Malley, Jamie Cook, and Matt Helders lurking tentatively behind him, contributing infrequent chords or the occasional, lonely drum.
But on reflection, I really do enjoy the album. I didn’t expect them to recreate an old sound, but on first listening I did experience the shock felt by so many. It is incredibly different; and although it was a pleasant experience, I did not feel any of the emotional response that their music usually induces. However, on every subsequent relisten, I have taken away something new from it. It’s subtle, complicated, and, while a bit pretentious, oddly endearing. But then, what else would you expect from someone at Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino, observing us from their detached existence?