In July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. The journey had started four days earlier in Florida, and culminated with the two astronauts landing at a prearranged site Armstrong named ‘Tranquility Base’. You know the rest: they planted a flag, bounced around a little and Armstrong gave that quote about a making a “giant leap for mankind”. Arctic Monkeys’ sixth album, whose name is inspired by that landing spot, is not quite as towering an achievement as putting a man on the moon – but consider this the band’s boldest step yet. “Giant leap”? Fuck, we can barely see them from here.
The band have wilfully pivoted through each era, from scrappy upstarts on their early records, to desert dudes on ‘Humbug’, through to rock gods on ‘AM’ in 2013. But this is the Arctic Monkeys like you’ve never heard them before. If you’re here looking for banging festival-sized anthems, you’ll be sorely let down. But if you want the goss on what is undoubtedly the band’s most intriguing record to date, step right this way.
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Composed initially on a piano by Turner in his LA pad, these songs were given the go-ahead by guitarist Jamie Cook, who felt they were appropriate enough for the band to record. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, however, is as close as we’ve ever been to hearing an Alex Turner solo record, outside of his solo soundtrack for 2010 film Submarine. There’s a noticeable lack of workable choruses, several of the songs feature a leisurely pace that’s a far cry from most of the Monkeys’ material, and most of the 40-minute record is occupied by Turner’s crooning. From the opening drawl of “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes/now look at the mess you made me make”, it’s evident that he’s not just the architect of this lavish establishment – he’s the concierge, towel boy, bartender and everything in between.
That’s not to discredit the performances from the rest of the band. They’ve turned what might have resembled a spiritual sequel to Father John Misty’s moody 2016 album ‘Pure Comedy’ into a fleshed-out, Bowie-esque statement of excess and grandeur. Lavish strings populate ‘One Point Perspective’, and album closer ‘The Ultracheese’ is one of the band’s finest collective achievements to date – like ‘Que Sera, Sera’, but with a gorgeous guitar solo. Drummer Matt Helders, whose skills are a tad underused on this record, has found a place by experimenting on synths for several tracks, while bassist Nick O’Malley turns in another steady effort with fantastic harmony work and irresistible basslines. ‘Four Out Of Five’ will feel the most familiar, existing as a compromise between some of ‘Suck It And See’’s poppiest arrangements and the ‘70s West Coast vibe that dominated The Last Shadow Puppets’ last record ‘Everything You’ve Come To Expect’.
‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ will reward deep-diving listeners – in particular those with an interest in picking apart Turner’s densest and most self-aware lyrics to date. He dabbles with religion, (“emergency battery pack just in time for my weekly chat with God on videocall), technology (“my virtual reality mask is stuck on ‘Parliament Brawl’) and politics (“the leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks”). There’s zingers on here too, and some of the best quips come when things get a bit silly – from Blade Runner references to illusions of “Jesus in the day spa” and self-deprecating moments of being “full of shite”. Plus, Turner manages to turn “who are you going to call, The Martini Police?” into a serviceable chorus on ‘The Star Treatment’. It’s a bloody miracle.
Even if it doesn’t feel like it immediately, the Monkeys’ DNA does inhabit these new songs. ‘Golden Trunks’ has as raw and brooding a riff as anything on ‘AM’, and there’s a distinct ‘Humbug’ feel to songs like ‘Science Fiction’ and ‘Batphone’. The Sheffield band’s journey has now taken them from “chip-shop rock’n’roll”, in Turner’s own words, to their very own ‘Pet Sounds’: the threads have been dangling for years, but Turner’s finally tied them together in a rather magnificent bow. Depending on where you’re sitting, this album will likely either be a bitter disappointment or a glorious step forward. But to where, exactly?
The album’s title is a fitting one: this record feels a lot like gazing into the night sky. At first it’s completely overwhelming – you’ll be trying to connect the scattered dots on this initially impenetrable listen, and maybe even despairing when it doesn’t all come together. But when the constellations show through, you’ll realise that it’s a product of searingly intelligent design.