Before May 2, it had been four years since Arctic Monkeys had performed live. The last time they did was at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, where the setlist was rammed with guitar anthems like ‘Dancing Shoes’ or ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’. The whole ‘AM’ tour felt like a series of parties, each with a boisterous soundtrack made for thrashing about in a sweaty mess to.
Then came the news frontman Alex Turner had pretty much ditched his guitar on new album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino‘, opting instead to settle down behind a baby grand piano. The record marks another sonic shift for the Sheffield band, but it also means their live show has to adapt and change to fit too. The group have only played four shows on this new album so far – two in San Diego, one in Los Angeles, and another in New York – yet there are already some marked differences between now and the last time we saw the boys on the road.
Their set is more sophisticated now
‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’ doesn’t exactly have a lot of choruses on it. Nor does it really have any big hooks you can chant along to, like that almighty riff in ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ There are definitely still some big-hitters in the setlist in that context – so far they’ve been playing ‘Brianstorm’, ‘Don’t Look Down Cos I’ve Moved You’re Chair’, ‘R U Mine?’ and more – but many others have had to make way for the more croon-y new cuts. That changes the atmosphere of a show a lot – the bangers feel more heightened and intense, while the slower songs feel even more elegant than they might have done previously.
But Alex Turner is more playful than ever
Just because he’s not wielding licks and riffs doesn’t mean Alex Turner’s performance has become boring and super serious, though. In fact, if anything, he’s far more playful than he’s ever been on stage with the Monkeys. Perhaps cutting loose with The Last Shadow Puppets on their ‘Everything You’ve Come To Expect’ tour made him want to relax more with his main band, but these new songs definitely give him more chance to indulge that side of him. At the band’s New York show last week (May 9), he put down his guitar for eight songs, only three of which he sat behind a piano for, and made the most of it. On ‘Pretty Visitors’, he slid across stage on a wheely piano stool before stalking around with legs bent and splayed, arms raised like giant claws. For context, at the band’s Reading Festival headline set, he only removed his guitar for half of one song – ‘Arabella’.
The Sheffield Elvis persona seems to have disappeared
That fun approach isn’t something you ever would have seen Alex doing on the ‘AM’ tour. Then, he was a leather jacket-clad, hip-swinging rock star, oozing cool and drawling his way through stage banter. He was relentlessly mocked for his appropriated American twang, which seems to have disappeared, at least for now. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’ might be loosely set on the moon, but it seems like imagining himself in outer space has brought its writer back to his roots. In ‘Golden Trunks’, he sings, much like he used to in the band’s early days, in Yorkshire dialect: “He’s got him sen a theme tune”. That re-embracing of his home seems to have extended into his on-stage persona, too.
There’s fewer old songs in the setlist
Maybe it’s because when the band re-listened to their old material to pick the songs for this tour’s setlist Alex found himself embarrassed by some of his old lyrics, but there’s fewer Monkeys classics present in the shows. If you’re hoping to hear more than a couple of songs from 2006 debut ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, or 2007 follow-up ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, you’re going to be disappointed. So far, they’ve only played two tracks from each – ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, ‘The View From The Afternoon’, ‘505’, and ‘Brianstorm’. Of the older songs they have been selecting, many have been from their slower, softer, prettier side – the likes of ‘Cornerstone’, ‘The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala’, and ‘505’. ‘Tranquility Base…”s nature makes it easier for those tracks to fit into the setlist, like bridges between the beefier songs and the new album’s oddities.
It’s not just the old gang on stage anymore
Recreating an album as strange as ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’ means it can no longer just be the four friends from High Green on stage. Now, they need a whole extended backing band to help them bring the record to life. There’s Tom Rowley and Davey Latter, who have been in the live set-up since 2013, and new addition Tyler Parkford, also of LA psych trio Mini Mansions. Tame Impala‘s Cameron Avery, who has been supporting the band on tour in his solo guise, has also been popping up on the new songs in the setlist (he also played on the record). This extended family is more prominent than in the past. Where before they might have been tucked away a little more, now they have no choice but to be in the middle of the mix, playing the Wurlitzer between Alex and drummer Matt Helders, or doing percussion from a lengthy drum riser. More bodies on stage feels, again, more sophisticated, and worlds away from the polo-shirted gang of the mid-noughties.