Two years ago, for his 30th birthday, lead-singer, guitarist, and Sheffield post-punk street poet, Alex Turner, was gifted a Steinway Vertegrand piano. The Arctic Monkeys frontman stored it in the “Lunar Surface,” his Los Angeles home studio christened after the conspiracy theory that Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landings. What ensued next was a cosmic conception of sorts – a combination of science fiction, space exploration, and a mythical earth exodus resulting in the band’s late-70s style, piano lounge serenade of a sixth LP, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
The album opens with Turner reminiscing over meandering keys and soulful backing vocals, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes / Now look at the mess you made me make / Hitchhiking with a monogrammed suitcase, miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway.” Those lyrics are just about the only reminders on the LP of the sound the band are known for. Their last release, 2013’s bombastic, guitar grating, and critically acclaimed AM did explore R&B and hip-hop themes, but at its core, was still sonically and lyrically the musings of an indie rock band at its prime.
The band’s debut, 2006’s Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not, was the fastest-selling debut album in British history, an introduction that persuaded us to make eyes with drummer Matt Helders, guitarist Jamie Cook, and bassist Nick O’Malley, on the dance floor, while being charmed by the clever, metrical, yet well-grounded lyrics of Turner, then, just a blue-collar English lad. But they say LA can do things to you, and now that they’ve decided to call those illustrious Hills home, they’ve landed on Tranquility – an album literally and figuratively out of their world. As Turner eloquently puts it, “It’s got more chords. And space shit.”
Those aforementioned chords and “space shit” are at their best and brightest halfway through the album on the satisfyingly psychedelic, “Four Out of Five.” It’s an invitation to a Taqueria, but not just any taqueria, it’s one on the moon – and not just on the moon, but on the rooftop of (you guessed it) the Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Unlike the other cute new places popping up and gentrifying the moon base, the restaurant, called the “Information-Action Ratio,” (named after the concept coined by Neil Postman that being able to access endless information in excess can be harmful; paralyzing us from deciding on what is actually important) is well reviewed – “and that’s unheard of,” Turner croons. The band chose “Four Out of Five” as the first song to promote from their album, but notably, the band decided not to lead with any singles – corroborating the belief that the album is meant to be devoured not a la carte, but as a full course meal (one I assume would be served at a well-reviewed taqueria, on the moon).
The band’s embrace of a new nostalgia; one that’s somehow retro and paradoxically in the future, is perplexing but suites them well. The songs may play like the out of touch ramblings of a rock star with too much time on his recently well-versed in piano playing hands (like when Turner ask to be kissed under the moon’s side boob in the album’s title track), but it’s the band at their most acutely aware, a side effect from reading science fiction (also the name of a track) and being emerged in American cynicism. In “Golden Trunks” there’s the leader of the free world comically dressed as an overzealous wrestler. Then there’s the opening frivolity of “One Point Perspective,” where Turner sings, “Dancing in my underpants / I’m gonna run for government”. Not to mention, the menacing and strategically repetitive, “She Looks Like Fun,” a lyric by lyric review of scrolling through someone’s compelling Instagram persona. The protagonist sings each caption confidentially, “Smile like you’ve got a straw in something tropical / I’ve got the party plugged right into my skull / Wayne Manor, what a memorable N.Y.E.” It reiterates the overwhelming content stimulation we currently find ourselves in, and that they named a taqueria after.
There’s also the winding, introspective, boozy ballad, “Ultracheese”. It’s reminiscent of the band’s previous album bookends, the forlorn and cinematic “505” and the slow dance inciting “No. 1 Party Anthem.” The track tells the story of a not so current friend and clearly lost love, with Turner belting out with all the swagger of a love scorn lounge musician, “When you were just trying to orbit the sun / When you were just about to be kind to someone / Because you had the chance.”
Though the tone change may be staggering for some, Turner is still unwaveringly clever. He may be leading the band on an unconventional and in some ways defiant path, but in a day and age where formulaic songs lead to chart-topping success, it’s refreshing that Arctic Monkeys aren’t afraid to embrace their evolving influences and push their art. They didn’t release AM 2.0, to the chagrin of guitar rock purist the world over, but there’s something to be said for leaving it all behind (earth included), and confidently starting over in a futuristic daydream. Serge Gainsbourg would be intrigued, Bowie would be pleasantly bemused, and earth dwelling music connoisseurs should be elated.
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