When Alex Turner hunkered down, isolated, in the spare bedroom of his Los Angeles home in front of a Steinway Vertegrand piano in 2016, it’s highly unlikely he knew that the end product would only become more profound two years down the line as the world copes with a global pandemic.
It’s surely impossible not to see, right now, that 2018’s ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ is the perfect encapsulation of 2020; an album borne out of isolation now hits even harder than before.
If you strip away the dreamy guitars, retro-futuristic sound and lounge singer shimmer, the Arctic Monkeys’ divisive sixth album is sonically distant, nostalgic and generally anxious. The record depicts a series of vignettes set at the eponymous deserted lunar hotel from the perspectives of its ragtag menagerie of employees. From the bored Mark at the front desk (the languid title track) to lounge band The Martini Police (spacey opener ‘Star Treatment’), each song is intrinsically tied together in the characters, who search for genuine love and connection in a fast-paced, inaccessible world. Sound familiar?
Two years after the album’s release, as we still socially distance and live in a world that feels straight out of science fiction, we’re all on the hunt for connectivity and have finally slowed down enough to tackle the album’s message head on. You might even say, as Turner does on ‘She Looks Like Fun’, that “No one’s on the streets / We moved it all online / As of March”.
When the lockdowns first began back in, erm, March, tweets online flounced the idea that all of the new free time in our schedules could lead us all to creation write groundbreaking plays like Shakespeare’s King Lear, or change the world like Isaac Newton if we just put in the effort – even if fatigue and burnout makes plans feel hard to actually follow through with. That desire for creativity, thwarted by the actuality of having to create, is captured perfectly on ‘One Point Perspective’. One moment you’re “dancing in your underpants,” planning on “running for government” and going to “form a covers band” – and the next you’ve lost your train of thought and end up spending the rest of the night spaced out on the sofa.
It’s comforting to have a song that reflects both the expectation and reality of productivity and understand that, global pandemic or not, it’s just not possible all the time. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ itself came from Alex Turner experiencing writers’ block while playing guitar — if Arctic Monkeys can lose their train of thought from time to time, so can you.
As countries around the world weave in and out of lockdown restrictions, we’ve all had to adjust and opt for Zoom calls or socially distanced visits instead of grabbing a drink or seeing a film. As a result we’ve leaned heavily into our virtual identities to connect with one another – a key theme on ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’. Turner doesn’t shy away from his disdain for social media and how reliant we’ve become on technology to dictate our personalities.
Tracks such as ‘She Looks Like Fun’, ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip’ and ‘Batphone’ all detail just how insufferable we’re all allowed to be online and how we often use it to forgo genuine connection. (Yet it’s also true that 2020 is providing a unique reversal to the album’s perception of social media; while we’ve all seen our phone usage skyrocket over the last few months, it’s become fundamental for keeping connected with loved ones and friends. And yes, while there’s still “no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be” online, there’s also no limit to the amount of good we can do through the sharing of news articles, petitions, and donating to important causes too.)
It’s not just technology and burnout that hit differently on the album. Tracks such as ‘Golden Trunks’ and ‘American Sports’ reference politics with a feeling of existential dread that’s easily applicable to the upcoming U.S. election, while ‘Four Stars Out of Five’ and ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ both feel unflinchingly lonely as their echoed vocals and hypnotic piano riffs allow us all to romanticise a time in the not-so-distant past when we could safely travel, go on dates and take it easy for a little while.
But it’s not all grey skies: ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ doesn’t just drop all of these problems at your feet and then leave you to pick up the pieces. In the anthemic ‘The Ultracheese’, Arctic Monkeys created a touchstone on how to stay afloat in the irrational world we’re all currently living in. It’s all about having a bit of self-compassion and finding happiness in the little things in life — cut ties with friends who aren’t really friends (“Still got pictures of friends on the wall / I suppose we aren’t really friends anymore”).
Go for walks, invest in hobbies, and dress however you want. Hang out with friends in a cool, safe way, let people know you love them and be kind to others in spite of the state of the world. And, perhaps most importantly, support local businesses like your favourite local lunar hotel and casino.