If Radiohead’s OK Computer was a warning about a not-too-far-off dystopia where fascist fat cats rule thanks to a combination of apathy and security-state apparati, then Arctic Monkeys Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a blase report from that reality, where we are all too busy reading reviews of the latest hip taco joint; drowning in SEOs, hashtags, marketing campaigns; too mesmerized by the latest celebrity side boob and our wanna-be pro wrestler president, to truly give a damn.
Monkeys’ frontman Alex Turner takes on the role of a washed-up lounge singer desperate to escape all his exes, and an earth that has perhaps suffered a terrible Armageddon or, well, who can remember, who takes up residency on a resort casino on the moon known as the “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.”
Turner isn’t trying to save anybody here; he’s just like everyone else: looking for the next quick dopamine fix, self-obsessed, ready to be the next big thing, but unwilling to take off the virtual reality mask or put down the smartphone. It’s almost certainly Turner is taking aim at social media and the state of world politics in 2018, but it’s the science fiction flair that makes it palatable.
That here ain’t no place for dolls like you and me/Everybody’s on a barge
Floating down the endless stream of great TV/1984, 2019” Turner croons on “Star Treatment.” This isn’t the Monkeys anyone expected. It isn’t one anyone thought would be, or probably wanted. “Tranquility Base” is a chilled-out lounge-glam long-play held together by Turner’s clever quips and cultural commentary. It’s also fucking hysterically on point.
There isn’t a true rocker on the album and that’s a good thing. The band was really only previously capable of garage-rock bangers, interspersed with B sides. While AM was a commercial success, like most of their records it wasn’t particularly coherent, consistent or worth a full play.
Sure, Turner’s one-liners could be really good, but often they fell flat. Here Turner delivers in spades over and over. It might be embarrassing for him, given his past pronouncements about the perils of overthinking things, but it sounds like he thought about this record for more than a second.
He channels Bowie, Cave, Orbison and perhaps Sinatra. The glam influence is undeniable and yet the songs lack the genre’s inherent drama. It is instead replaced by snark, sex and melancholy.
The song “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is the album’s “Major Tom,” but instead of being gripped by a brave astronaut taking in the majesty and gravity of his situation we get to meet an employee of the album’s namesake resort who waits eagerly to serve his guests oblivious to the fact that he’s on the fucking moon. “Good afternoon, Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, Mark Speaking/ Please, tell me how may I direct your call?” Turner croons.
The desperation and pathos of the situation is revealed a few lines later as Turner coos, “This magical thinking feels as if it really might catch on/ Mama wants some answers
Do you remember when it all went wrong?/ Technological advances really bloody get me in the mood.”
The underlying darkness briefly revealed before the shiny things distract our space-lounge-lizard narrator once again.
For an album without many singles “Four Out of Five” is one hell of single. Some of the nightclub pomp of AM makes up the song’s backbone as the rest of the band goes all Ziggy Stardust. Turner plays siren luring travelers to the moon-based casino. “Look, you could meet someone you like/ During the meteor strike/Its that easy/Lunar surface on a Saturday night”
Then the chorus comes cascading in a mix of deep pathos, sharp wit and true absurdity in what is almost certainly one of the best hooks the band has ever written.Take it easy for a little while/Come and stay with us/ It’s such an easy flight/Cute new places keep on popping up/ Since the exodus it’s all getting gentrified/ I put a taqueria on the roof/ It was well reviewed
Four stars out of five/ And that’s unheard of!”
Mankind in space is just as shallow, vapid, and depraved as it was on the earth it appears to have ruined. “It’s the big night in Tinsel City/ Life became a spectator sport/ I launch my fragrance called ‘Integrity’/ I sell the fact that I can’t be bought” Turner brags on “Batphone.”
While Turner delivers the performance of a lifetime as singer, his new-found obsession with the keys does not pay off. It’s overcome with interesting compositions, great bass lines from Nick O’Malley, drummer Matt Helders’ consummate restraint and Turner’s motormouth narration. But at other times songs trance on without much to take notice of, at least on first listen. This album is a slow burn, but its ambition and satirical birth are truly something to behold.
Arcade Fire may have had a similar bent on Everything Now, an album that crashed and burned as the band tossed aside the things that made them great, opting for the sterilizing and limiting confines of electronic dance music. The Monkeys certainly try something new here–trashing their comfort zone of big brash guitar hooks–but instead of limiting themselves they evolve. Doing so, they allow their biggest assets–Turner and his mouth—to shine. Turner may not be Jarvis Cocker, but he’s a damn good facsimile.