Monday, May 14, 2018

album review: 'tranquility base hotel & casino' by arctic monkeys

Most of you probably don't remember the last time I reviewed the Arctic Monkeys. It was nearly five years ago, I didn't have a proper camera yet, but I was mostly positive towards the record and I did think it had some moments that worked for me...

And everyone hated it! Yeah, I'll admit I was still very much in the learning curve for making album reviews, but the backlash I got to being mostly ambivalent on this indie darling was pretty pronounced, mostly because my review consisted of some... let's call them mixed opinions on their back catalog. Suffice to say, Arctic Monkeys broke around the same time as a lot of other bands in a similar noisy, post-punk revival brand of indie rock, and when you paired it with observational songwriting that might have had moments of self-awareness but was often way too sour and acerbic to really resonate with me, as a group they just never clicked more deeply with me. Yes, you can make the argument that Alex Turner was one of the wittiest and smartest guys in the room, but if you know it and want everyone else to know it, any amount of self-deprecation doesn't make you any less of a dick! It's absolutely no surprise the band became a Gen X critical darling in the mid-2000s - and also no surprise that as they got older and arguably more mature and their fury curdled into detached, snide bitterness, said fans mostly stuck around... provided, of course, they could get behind the shifts in sound. Yeah, that was the other thing - Arctic Monkeys may have started in some furious, borderline punk territory, but they got way slower and more indebted to a conventional rock canon with every record, especially as they started embracing stoner rock elements on Humbug and psychedelic elements on Suck It And See and AM. And that was the frustrating thing for me: this band is clearly talented and had the capacity to take sonic risks and write some damn catchy songs... but the content and a lot of Alex Turner's delivery left a bad taste in my mouth.

Still, when I heard the band was taking a stark departure in their sound for lounge-inspired smooth jazz and spacey pop tones... yeah, you might have seen traces of that coming on previous records, but this sounded like something far out, and a record that has proven quite polarizing for a lot of fans. And hell, I was intrigued - maybe if Alex Turner could get out of his own head in terms of content, he could write something interesting, so what did we get with Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino?


Well, credit where it's due, I certainly respect the conceptual risk being taken here, because while there might have been some signs coming in the broader psychedelic tendencies of their past two records, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is something else, the sort of genre-bending risk that does show some roots in the Arctic Monkeys sound while expanding into something that while more sedate is more layered and challenging... to a point. And yes, this means that like previous albums, I'm generally pretty mixed on this new project, albeit for very different reasons - not quite where I'd call this a failure, but the sort of stylistic detour where I would seriously doubt the band will stay for long before returning to their traditional sound. And while I respect the ambition and risk being taken here, I'm not remotely convinced that this project is as inspired or challenging as it sets out to be - and in a cruel twist of irony, I think the band themselves might get that too.

And I think it's important we start with that concept, loose as it might be - and indeed, this isn't so much a narrative story as it is Alex Turner outlining a hypothetical place and time and using sci-fi iconography to draw explicit parallels to our world today. It's the near future, humanity has set up a series of colonies on the moon - the base of the title is set up on the Sea Of Tranquility on the moon, and a few other craters and lunar references are made - and in comparison to the glowing hope of the space race, the lunar hotel and colony turn out to be the sort of cheap, garish, kind of tacky lounge you'd see on your average cruise ship or resort, with Alex Turner as the overpaid frontman in the midst of an alcohol-fueled midlife crisis. And very quickly you realize that the vast majority of this imagery is intended to offer two things: one, to paint the picture of the chintzy, depressing-for-its-cheaply-believable-normalcy setting, more for texture in the symbolism than direct literary reference; and two, to serve as an extended metaphor for rock star detachment because of course Alex Turner is eventually going to make this all about himself, even though you can tell there's a faint whiff of disgust and disappointment he's resorting to it. That's the first genuinely odd thing about this record: you get the impression that once Turner thought of the general metaphors of detachment related to this lunar colony, maybe some broader thoughts surrounding technology escalating human apathy and detachment from systems we can barely comprehend like on 'The World's First Monster Truck Front Flip', run by men willing to sell anything referenced on 'Golden Trunks', he didn't really have any desire or focus to take it further, or delve into the larger-than-life story opportunities possible through this setting. It makes sense that he references Blade Runner very early on 'Star Treatment' - the faded faux-noir has a similar aesthetic root - but instead of engaging in the deeper questions surrounding humanism at the root of the story, it simply borrows the reference point and staggers onward, seeming faintly embarrassed that it's referencing sci-fi at all. You get something similar with the reference to the Information-Action Ratio developed by Neil Postman - the idea that the more decontextualized information we receive the less willing we are to take action - which for dramatic irony becomes the name of a taco stand on the moon. Hell, the entire science fiction genre is used as an extended metaphor on 'Science Fiction', where he notes some find emotional weight in it, but he sees it analogous to concepts veiled in language that are more clever than profound.

And this is where we encounter the first big fundamental flaw on this record, and ironically one that Turner seems somewhat aware of: there's no deeper core or pathos to this project whatsoever. Typically in sci-fi narratives touching on emotional detachment there's an fundamental core that drives humanity, makes us better than cheap, passive automatons to uncaring systems - hell, it's one place where the reference to 1984 on 'Star Treatment' makes sense. But peel away the layers of detachment on this record reinforced by technology and jaded cynicism and you find little to no raw human emotion, and I'm torn whether that was the point. On the one hand, songs like 'Science Fiction' seem to set the stage for it in the final verse, in trying to craft a love song that seems more clever than it really is to reinforce that artifice - a tragedy for which you'd expect a climax to be a revelation of simple passion on 'The Ultracheese' but never quite materializes - but on the other you read interviews where Alex Turner describes lines like 'kiss me underneath the moon's side boob' from the title track as profound, unaware of how it undercuts any emotional arc or theme. And when you realize that so many of these songs are intended as more metaphor than narrative - 'Golden Trunks' referencing the current U.S. political administration, 'She Looks Like Fun' referencing how people construct shallow online identities, even 'The Ultracheese' referencing a lost American golden age in the original optimism of the space race - not only do you lose the speculative wonder that is at the core of the best sci-fi, but you further compromise any emotional dynamic that expects me to care about the gentrification of the moon or how humanity will wind up still amused by the same inane, chintzy crap peddled by our frontman marinating in his own missed opportunities and failures, or how he has seen and lusts after countless women who chase their passions and to whom he can never quite drag down to his disillusioned level. Hell, the most pathos you get comes from this arc...

And in a twisted way it makes sense that Alex Turner is the frontman selling it, working a flat Berlin-era David Bowie impression in his delivery. But it's that comparison that brings in my second big issue with this record: for even a record pushing some of the most backwards-looking sci-fi I've heard in a while, it's really damn derivative. The Bowie comparison is the most obvious - and not just because he also used science fiction framing to explore artistic detachment - but with the modern reference points it's hard to avoid a comparison to Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar has well on the 2017 record ken. Now ken is a polarizing record, but it also explored icy themes of performative detachment with similar delivery - but that record worked because not only was it ruthlessly self-critical, there was a sense of genuine tension in the face of political fallout south of the border. And yet for as much as noir can be deliberately paced, there's none of that same tension from Turner, or any core of genuine emotion that would come from artists who have used similar abstraction like Nick Cave or the late Leonard Cohen, who is directly referenced here on songs like 'One Point Perspective'. Hell, by embracing that lounge singer veneer he's pushing back against that emotional core for something that's deliberately a performative affectation, which becomes really damn distracting in how Turner sells this record, because he doesn't have the craggy voice of Cohen or Cave, or even the smoother baritone of someone like Josh Tillman to convey that irony. Instead Turner tries to force a very clipped smoothness and leans into an increasingly frail falsetto, and for as much as the lyrics are framed as the 'star' of this record, their delivery varied between underwhelming and incredibly distracting.

But this loops back to the production and instrumentation on this record, and let's put aside for a moment how the Arctic Monkeys basically set aside any desire to write coherent hooks or well-structured songs on this record - there were no singles pushed for this record and for good reason, I doubt there's a single cut here as memorable on a compositional level as any single pushed from an earlier record. And here's the thing: for as much as I generally liked the weathered, analog production of this record - again, it's reminiscent of early-to-mid 70s Bowie in a mostly good way with the firmer bass grooves and jagged fuzz guitar and stuttered, almost krautrock inspired grooves on a few songs - without stronger hooks many of these songs blur together. Hell, you'd think setting this kind of story in space would give them license to use more futuristic effects or synthesizers, but from songs like 'Four Out Of Five' and 'Batphone' we get tinny fragments playing off slightly more eerie keyboards that seem like the barest concession to the genre and do nothing to add any sense of grandeur. And yes, I get that the lack of said grandeur is part of the point but what a waste of setting and storytelling, to say nothing of not investing the tragedy of humanity's failure to evolve with any sense of gravitas. And while I'll give the back half of this album some credit for letting the basslines build some greater ominous presence against the guitar sizzle - seriously, that added tension saves songs like the title track like the guitars do on 'The World's First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip' - none of it feeds well into any sort of arc, which leads the record feeling oddly listless and meandering, especially against the abrupt ending on 'The Ultracheese'. Sure, the textures are solid, but dig a little deeper... there's less melodically interesting or notable than will be remembered, I'm sorry.

But here's the thing: the more I think about it the more I'd probably agree that this record accomplishes what it sets out to do. It's a genre deconstruction more than anything, taking a futuristic setting and premise and showing exactly how sleazy, banal, and dreary such an existence would be in the face of what we as humans would do - and the ugliness comes in the realization that at his most nakedly pessimistic, Turner is probably right. And I have little room to judge this: with my first book To Kill A Dragon it's just as much of a genre deconstruction - I don't just 'get' this sort of project, I got my own damn version published three years ago, and as such, there's a part of me that at least respects this in its construction! But if you're going to engage in such deconstruction - especially with the emotional arc firmly focused on our protagonist's navel - without any deeper purpose or emotional clarity or character evolution pulled from it, the story feels undercooked and drab, all that clever framing and lyricism circling the void. And while I do think this could be viewed as a natural extension of what the Arctic Monkeys have released before, both in themes and sounds, it would probably be better suited as a side project. As it is, I'm giving this a light 6/10, but I can't recommend this as more than a curiosity, especially to Arctic Monkeys fans. It's an interesting listen, but it's also a sour, cynical, nihilistic listen that does too little with its setting, big ideas, themes, or even its sleaze. Give it a try if you're curious, but don't say I didn't warn you.

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