You know you’re in for a challenging listen when a record’s opening lyric is – to all intents and purposes – an apology.
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes / Now look at the mess you made me make.”
See, what Alex Turner is basically saying there is, had he not become a fabulously successful, critically acclaimed and much adored rockstar, he’d have just kept on ripping off ‘Reptilia’ in mid-sized venues with his mates.
Many – if not most – fans would be delighted with that alternate outcome, but fate had other ideas. So, for better or worse, here we are.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is nothing if not visionary. Previous Arctic Monkeys records drew unashamedly from their immediate lyrical and sonic neighbourhoods – a Sheffield nightclub, a California desert. On this, the band’s sixth LP, the stylistic cues come from, would you believe it, the moon.
Well, mostly anyway. It’s not quite a concept album, though a silver thread running through much of it is a near-future timeline where the cool kids live on the moon. Except the titular moonbase is kinda clunky and 70s-sci-fi like. He’s been watching a lot of movies, you see.
Once you buy into the conceit – it takes a few listens, don’t be hard on yourself – Tranquility Base is a joyous bit of escapism. Take stand-out track ‘Four Out Of Five’, where ‘our narrator’ (let’s call him) is inviting guests over from Earth for brunch: “It’s such an easy flight / Cute new places keep popping up around Clavius [a crater] / It’s getting gentrified.”
Lyric nerds who’ve been waiting anxiously for some knockout Alex Turner punchlines will be, on the whole, disappointed. There’s a few zingers, scattered here and there – “Dance as if someone’s watching / Cos they are,” on ‘She Looks Like Fun’ – but most gags are squarely of the oh-well-I-guess-you-had-to-be-
“Shining city on the fritz” is a nifty line about present-day America on ‘Golden Trunks’, for my money the first genuinely arresting political song of the Trump era. It playfully evokes that creeping nocturnal dread the awful cunt inspires. He crops up more than once on this album, like a bad smell, as is his way.
A few of the tunes are, whisper it, a teensy bit throwaway; ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip’ has a banging title and precious little else. ‘She Looks Like Fun’ is Turner’s once-an-album excuse to get his sleaze on, with mixed results.
What else. Drummer Matt Helders seems to have been outside having a piss for at least half the recording process, though he does deliver some thunder, all too timidly, on a handful of numbers. The bass playing, much of it by Turner, is inspired; without it great swathes of Tranquility Base would slide into irredeemable mid-tempo tedium.
The real headliner is the grand piano, bought for Turner as a 30th birthday gift. It sets a glossy, lounge-act tone that seeps into everything, not least the crooning lead vocals and exquisitely polished harmonies. Guitars (remember those?) are relegated to mere ornamental gimmicks here, except maybe on ‘Golden Trunks’ and ‘Four Out Of Five,’ where a little of that spiky old Arctic Monkeys insolence reasserts itself.
You get why they didn’t release a lead single – it’s a very weird album.
So will you like it? If you can come to terms with the fact Alex Turner is now a goateed Hollywood aesthete, and not the chippy Lacoste-wearing Yorkshire upstart you fell in love with ten years ago, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Closing number ‘The Ultracheese’, for instance, is a triumph, rounding proceedings off with an assured heartstring-tug of matey nostalgia.
And look, at least he’s self aware. On keynote track ‘Science Fiction’ he pretty much gives the game away: “I want to make a simple point about peace and love / But in a sexy way, where it’s not obvious.”
Less grandiloquently, he also confesses: “I’m so full of shite.”
He’s still Alex Turner though, and despite the peculiar choice of mis en scene this time around he remains without doubt the best songwriter of his generation.
And if you do struggle to get on with Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, remember: it’s all your fault for buying his records and turning him into a self-absorbed piano-tinkling weirdo.
Like he said – he just wanted to be one of The Strokes