Album Review: Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Slaying sacred cows is never a good idea. It’s a messy business. A little blood and gore goes a long, long way. The beasts themselves don’t like it and kick up no end of a fuss. The faithful get restless while true believers and defenders of the icon get all antsy, weapon up, and tend to kick off.
So, accepting an invitation to review the latest from Sheffield icons the Arctic Monkeys for Exposed Magazine is to accept a poison chalice. It’s the ultimate hospital pass. If it’s a work of timeless genius, all is well. But what if it’s crap? Sheffield is fiercely defensive of all things Sheffield. What if you’re the one who has to say that the Emperors who are also native sons are butt naked beneath the slick ‘dos, suits, and snakeskin that cloak their latest offering?
You would, as they used to sing on the unreconstructed terraces, never walk again.
Who would accept a commission like that?
Hi, I’m AJ. I’ll be your reviewer for the evening. On the menu tonight Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. The band? Oh, The Arctic Monkeys, sir. A cheeky little band with a fine pedigree and a kick like a mule.
Let’s begin at the beginning and state a few home truths.
When it comes to Sheffield and music, it’s a city that is blessed and cursed. It’s blessed inasmuch as it has produced some of the greatest bands and music that the UK has ever heard. It’s cursed by the simple fact that it is not the South Yorkshire way to shout the odds and beat the chest. Wry asides and bluff insight has served Yorkshire for hundreds of years. That isn’t about to change just because bands from the city over the hill love to shout the odds about being the best bands in the world (The Stone Roses apart none of them have lived up to their hype – and the Roses themselves never knew that they’d caught lightning in a bottle until it was too late) and the city along from the city over the hill once produced the greatest band in the history of pop (and Gerry and The Pacemakers. Let’s not forget that. Ever).
So, being honest, Sheffield has never got its props musically. The seams mined have been rich and have produced an endless bounty. The Arctic Monkeys are a gem cut and polished within the city’s boundaries. Their backstory is now taught in Sheffield’s Primary Schools as part of ‘Local History 101’ courses. Formed in 2002 in High Green between Alex Turner, Matt Helders, Andy Nicholson and Jamie Cook, the myth goes that they found their audience on t’internet, rode the electronic groundswell, knocked out Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, an album full of riotous bangers now rightly regarded as old-school classics, and then launched it and themselves into the arms of a post-Oasis world exhausted by the fact that Razorlight were shit and The Libertines couldn’t write anything as good as their tabloid headlines.
A grateful world received them with open arms, and bar Nick O’Malley replacing Andy Nicholson, the rest is history.
A key part of the story is that unlike some other Sheffield acts who turned into globe-bestriding monsters, their origins ran through them like words in a stick of seaside rock. (I’m looking at you, Def Leppard. You too, The Human League). You can’t listen to first releases and not hear Sheffield. It’s in the language. It’s in the accent. It’s in the energy – all drunken fumblings on West Street at chucking out time on a Friday. It’s in, if we’re being honest, their references to a city still caught between its industrial past and its reinvention as a post-millennial destination for the discerning and upwardly mobile.
It’s not as simple as that, however. Like all origin stories, this is just a story. It’s equal parts fact and fiction – which, of course, all good rock n’ roll stories are. You can’t have rock n’ roll without a little stretching of the facts and a little adding of the local colour.
How do we cut through that?
Simple. Listen to the music.
Which bring us neatly to Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
They’re back and it’s here – the next instalment in the ongoing story of the Monkeys. Here’s the only review you’ll ever need. Ready? Hey, ho. Let’s go.
For those of you who can’t be bothered to read any further, here’s the headline takeaway.
‘Former spiky indie punk scamps stroke sixties drama twang pasticheurs stroke stoner rock acolytes stroke rock god iconoclausts swallow the book on 70’s skinny funk, spotweld it to lounge lizard crooner moves and turn up the reverb.’
There. Off you go.
For those of you still reading, here’s the thing.
The Arctic Monkeys will always be linked to Sheffield. The city is there in Turner’s vowel sounds and vernacular lyrics for a start – always the USP of the Monkeys. On Tranquility Base, though, these have been displaced by a transatlantic croooooooon. The vocalist only drops the Yorkie bomb for impact effect: ‘He’s got him sen a theme tune.’ For all they are Sheffield sons, the indie punk thrash that saw them become the band du jour for everyone going to university for the first time quickly gave way to an obsession with American stoner rock – all big skies, loping crunch and fiery angularity – via sixties twang. This led to an obsession with rock n’ roll shapes that saw their rock gods period.
This is all well and good. Pop music has always been a boss-eyed magpie art. In the twenty-first century finding a ‘new’ sound or a ‘new’ look for most artists means ripping off an old one, but The Monkeys and Turner have always been smart cookies who know their rock n’ roll history. This tells us that good artists who hit ride their sound into the ground of diminishing returns (I’m looking at you, Noel). Great artists who last know when to hold and consolidate and when to be bold and look for a new sound – because the industry is all about the new. Catch it right and you might shed some of your audience, but hopefully you’ll take enough of them with you to sustain interest and continue the journey. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter because we’re all postmodern and ironic now. You can pass the misstep off as a playful experiment and then play the hits on the festival circuit to remind the masses of why they (once) love(d) you
The career of the Arctic Monkeys has been an object lesson in how to achieve this. Yorkshire canniness? Well, plenty of others have tried and failed to do it. They’ve pulled it off, so hats off to them. The musical shapeshifting means that they’re aren’t the band they were (given their constant metamorphoses it might gnomically be said that they never were, that they’re the band equivalent of the axe of Heraclitus). But the genre-hopping begs the questions of what they actually stand for musically; and although forever linked to the city, whether or not it can fairly be said that they are actually of it anymore?
This record is not going to answer those questions. It’s only going to prolong the debate.
But is it a great record?
Tricky one to answer.
To put it bluntly, this is a post-millennial cut-and-paste job filtered through the band’s sensibility. Sonically, Tranquility Base channels Pink Floyd’s more rhythmically funky moments (listen to One Point Perspective and The Ultracheese and add Roger Water’s voice) and David Bowie’s Young Americans cultural landgrab while throwing in a side-order of Bernard Edward’s bubbling basslines. It takes these elements and ferries them to Vegas to be married in the Elvis wedding chapel to Serge Gainsborough’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, but then insists at the altar that the Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds (listen to The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip and recognize the sonic recreation) be allowed to join the wedding night consummations.
As such, the new album can be seen as another characteristically move sideways to move forward Arctic’s manoeuvre. The songs beyond the sonics largely avoid the mundanities of the verse / chorus format. When it works, as it does on Four Out of Five and American Sports, it’s fresh and inventive. When it doesn’t, as it doesn’t on Batman, the result is aimless meandering – the musical equivalent of a lounge singer on the two in the afternoon shift in a cocktail bar watching the waitress being picked up by a Svengali rather than them.
The irredeemably superior tend to think that just because someone talks with an accent they must also think with one too, but Alex Turner and the band have always bucked this trend. Turner is one of the great chroniclers of modern life, snipping it up into witty, fresh vignettes and delivering them as part of a package deal with great tunes. Here, though, the lyricism is so self-aware and self-possessed it’s in danger of being labelled self-absorbed. There are great lines here. ‘I wanted to be one of The Strokes / Now look at the mess you’ve made me make’ is bound to be cited as evidence that he’s still got it. He obviously has, and the random-lines-from-overhead-conversations–brought-into-sharp-relief-by-well-turned observations approach is a great way of dealing with the problem of how you comment on life when you’re a rich, successful, and critically lauded musician. It’s so Sheffield laconic at times it’s like listening to a well-travelled bohemian pub drunk.
Perhaps all of these things are part of the desired effect for the album. If so, it’s succeeded handsomely. Perhaps I’m irredeemably old school, though. I like more from my music. For a start, I like some tension and release. Why? Because everything from jokes to sex work is better if there’s actually a pay-off. By far I prefer to hang around with smart people who are confident enough not to take themselves too seriously. If you ever meet someone who can’t laugh at themselves, finish your drink, and walk away. No matter how pretty she is, or handsome he is. There’s better waiting. But stumbling into a clever joke where you’re the punchline is only funny to the guys playing it. The sense of us all being in on the private joke was what made the Monkeys so refreshing when they hit; as well as the sense that they spoke for us and only us. Clever Tranquility Base certainly is, but it feels like a private party and our noses are against the glass, where once it was one-for-all-and-all-for-one.
On this album, too, I’m not sure what Turner stands for, and I have an uneasy feeling that the wonderful single-line zingers are just that: a collection of great lines that come from nowhere and lead nowhere. Anyone can give great lines without context. Dylan Thomas built a career on it. Eventually you have to tie it together. I know that part of the fun Turner’s lyrics has always been working out the references and piecing together the story. There’s plenty of dense allusiveness here for acolytes to chew over. Even if you’ve earned the right to experiment, though, as Turner has, eventually you have to say something directly and mean it.
So, yes. Tranquility Base is clever. Yes, it’s fresh. Yes, it’s fun. But let’s be honest, there’s only so far you can go with irony. Eventually you have to get off the fence, stop being a clever dick, and start doing something with your smarts. Shapeshifting of any variety up to and including musical shenanigans is to be highly recommended, too. Playing and having fun with your identity to be recommended, too. But it works best when it arises from a strong, confident sense of who you really are. Otherwise you’re just casting around for something to fill in the blanks of an intrinsic lack of core values. Did anyone really think that Bono was less of a twat just because he revealed his Fly and McPhisto characters to allow him to play the rock star without damaging his authenticity on Achtung Baby and Zooropa? No, didn’t think so.
At some point, the Arctic Monkeys will have to reflect on their journey so far, and make the definitive statement about who they are and what they stand for. This is not that album. It’s just another chapter in their story. As such, I recommend listening to it. Why? Well, there’s a good reason why they’re the last band standing of their generation and the last UK guitar band to sustain an audience past two self-released EP’s and the debut album. They’re still good and they’ve earned the right for further experiments in sound. After all, they have the back catalogue for the festival bangers.
And the thing is that for true believers, this may well be a perfect 10, the moment they gather up the threads of their career to produce a masterpiece. Casuals may move right on by and give it a 4, unable to penetrate its dense surface to the treasures beneath. Me? No idea. I’m about to walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall over four days with nothing but this in my headphones and a change of t-shirt in my backpack. I’ll report back and post my definitive comment below on my return.
In conclusion, then, if it proves anything Tranquility Base yet again indicates that The Arctic Monkeys long ago learned the most important lesson in rock ‘n roll: the less you say, the cleverer you sound. As icons, the less you say, the more other people will try and work out what you mean. Look at Keith Richards. When he didn’t open his mouth much, he was by far the coolest Stone. As soon as he started opening up in his memoir it rapidly became clear what a cutthroat nasty piece of work he actually was and how shallow and vapid his bon mots really were.
But there is something here. While we work out what it is, the story continues.
Until then, enjoy.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is released 11 May.