If there’s one key lyric on Arctic Monkeys’ wonderfully divisive new album, it’s “Still got pictures of friends on the wall/Suppose we aren’t really friends any more…” Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a concept album about distance and separation and nostalgia and the downside of fame, in which Alex Turner plays the part of a louche, jaded lounge singer doing a residency at a luxury resort on the moon – a concept which is part 2001, part The Shining, all Bowie, set to queasy, off-kilter AOR reminiscent of the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, Sebastien Tellier, Air and Climate of Hunter-era Scott Walker.
Walker is an apt reference point, a man who wilfully retreated from fame and has spent the last 40 years gleefully goading and shocking his fans, and that’s exactly what the Monkeys have done here. TBH&C is a huge lurch away from the unpleasant misstep that was AM – it’s completely devoid of indie disco anthems, guitars take a back seat, choruses are at a premium, lyrics are everything, and James Ford’s impeccable production job places the record in some imaginary sci-fi 1970s; it’s an odd, sad, funny, compelling and absolutely fascinating record, and a brave, ambitious move for such a successful (and still youthful) band to make.
Regrets, they have a few. Normally listening to millionaire pop stars moaning about what a bummer fame is makes me want to vomit, but Turner, still growing up in public, just about gets away with it. “I only wanted to be one of The Strokes” he confesses in album opener (and shameless Bowie pastiche) ‘Star Treatment’ – “Now look at the mess you’ve made me make!” He’s painfully aware of the irony of being a rich, LA-dwelling rock star when it was his grittiness and ‘authenticity’ than put him there in the first place. “I launch my fragrance called INTEGRITY/I sell the fact that I can’t be bought” he sings on the spare, spooky electro-lounge of ‘Batphone’. On the lush title track, he opines “Do you celebrate your dark side, then wish you’d never left the house? Have you ever spent a generation trying to figure that one out?” Clearly he still is.
On that same song Turner sarcastically croons (there’s a lot of sarcastic crooning on this album) “Technological advances really bloody get me in the mood”, and technology is one of TBH&C’s primary obsessions. The band were one of the first to exploit the internet’s potential for bypassing the traditional music industry and reaching an audience; ironically it’s that same technology that is responsible for creating huge distances between us all. On ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip’ Turner bemoans how social media has made us lazy, obsessed with trivia and viral videos instead of making real connections – “The exotic sound of data storage/Nothing like it first thing in the morning”; whilst ‘Four Out of Five’ (the closest thing the album has to anything resembling a single – it’s even got a chorus!!!) is a withering commentary on algorithm-driven advertising and the rise of hipster gentrification – “Cute new places keep on popping up…I put a taqueria on the moon, it got rave reviews – four stars out of five!” And the sleazy, Sparks-y glam rock of ‘She Looks Like Fun’ takes aim at the show-off culture (“Snowboarding! Cheeseburgers!”) of social media – “Finally, I can share with you through cloudy skies/Every whimsical thought that enters my mind/There ain’t no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be.”
Ultimately there’s a tangible sadness to the album, that a man in his early 30s can sound so jaded and nostalgic, yearning for a simpler time. “I want to make a simple point about peace and love, but in a sexy way where it’s not obvious…I tried to write a song to make you blush, but I’ve a feeling that the whole thing may well just end up too clever for its own good” he sings on ‘Science Fiction’, which, much like OMD’s 2017 album The Punishment of Luxury, observes that science fiction generally paints a rosier picture of technology than science fact (and like OMD’s 1983 classic Dazzle Ships, the whole album is a contrarian exercise in fan-shedding). Closing ballad ‘The Ultracheese’, possibly the finest song Turner has written, finds him sitting at the piano, paranoid and pining for the early days – “I get freaked out by a knock at the door when I haven’t been expecting one/Didn’t that used to be part of the fun, once upon a time?” And if there’s a better last line on an album this year than “Oh the dawn won’t stop weighing a ton/I’ve done some things that I shouldn’t have done/But I haven’t stopped loving you once…” then I’ll be very surprised.
Anyone expecting another AM, or more songs about taxi ranks and shit nightclubs, is going to be disappointed. Anyone wanting to hear a sad, funny, wordy and imaginative album about paranoia and alienation, however, is in for a treat.