Is this the end?
From the moment Alex Turner opens his mouth on ‘Star Treatment’, the opening track on ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, we’re in uncharted territory. The first line: “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make“, is conspicuous in numerous ways, glaringly past tense and singular in subject. This is an album of ‘I’, not ‘we’.
And the mood of the album is ingrained in each track. Instead of the lurching guitars, slinky rock & roll and hip hop influences that defined 2013’s AM, it’s a deeply different experience that very nearly ended up as an Alex Turner solo record.
One of the pervading influences on the album is The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’, an album that the band’s troubled frontman Brian Wilson largely made with session musicians while the rest of the band were away on tour. They returned to find they weren’t going to be singing about surfing and hot rods any more. ‘TBH+C’ is Turner taking centre stage in a way that he’s never quite managed before. Trading riffs for the tinkling ivories of his Steinway piano, he’s taken the Monkeys into lounge pop territory where the crooner and the listener are king and, let’s be honest, the band fade into the background. And as such, it’s a record that inadvertently raises questions over the future of one of Britain’s most enduringly popular groups.
If ‘AM’ was characterised by the powerhouse drumming of Matt Helders, ‘Tranquility Base’ couldn’t be more different – he’s here relegated to background fills and an unexpected experimentation with synths. It’s a similar story for guitarist Jamie Cook and bassist Nick O’Malley, who provide a slinking, cinematic edge to Alex’s album.
Star Treatment, a song by Arctic Monkeys on Spotify
Alex Turner has never sounded more itchy about being in a band, more ready to make the jump into the great unknown – and ‘Tranquility Base’ proves that the next natural step could be a solo career, something he’s only really explored on the ‘Submarine’ mini-album.
The band, of course, can’t be written out of this album – Cook, Helders and O’Malley bring their masterful performance and heart to the sound. But ‘Tranquility Base’ sees Turner crafting a glorious glimpse into a world where he alone is king. In the intervening years since ‘AM’, Turner recorded a second record with the Last Shadow Puppets, touring the festivals with his pal Miles Kane and, seemingly, had an absolute blast. That, you would suspect, would be his holiday from the Monkeys, but instead of regrouping with his bandmates, he retreated to splendid LA isolation to work up a project that wasn’t necessarily intended for his day job band.
There’s something rather telling about the way that Jamie Cook first reacted to hearing what Alex Turner had been cooking up at his Los Angeles home.
“I think at first, because it was quite basic – piano, vocal and no guitar – Al was in two minds about, ‘is this Arctic Monkeys or am I going somewhere else with this’, Cook recently told Mojo.
“And maybe at first I was a bit like that as well. It’s not definitely not a guitar-heavy record, not typically what we’d do. It took a lot more thinking about.”
Turner’s apparent self-questioning says it all – he’s on the way to establishing himself as a solo performer, even if he’s not quite aware of it. We’ve seen this before, with Damon Albarn and Gorillaz, the side project that ate the main band. All considered, don’t be surprised if ‘Tranquility Base’ proves to be the final hurrah from a generation-defining band at the very peak of their powers. We’re not in Sheffield any more, readers.