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Arctic Monkeys‘ sixth LP, the syllable-rich Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, opens with an instant-classic and already oft-quoted lyric: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” the band’s frontman Alex Turner sings, “now look at the mess you made me make.” The “mess” to which Turner refers is a career that has long since exceeded the band he worshipped as a puckish teenager.
It’s true that Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 debut Whatever You Say I Am, That What’s I’m Not earned the band “British Strokes” comparisons from the jump, due to Turner’s mile-a-minute narratives about youth and young manhood set to energetic garage rock tantrums. But The Strokes peaked early, showing signs of flame-out right around the time that Arctic Monkeys were getting started. Since then, the British Strokes have zoomed past their US counterparts in nearly every way, putting together one of the more enduring careers in modern rock music.
Arctic Monkeys reached a new artistic and commercial plateau with their fifth album, 2013’s AM, a slinky, sexy riff-fest that borrowed hip-hop’s throbbing bottom end and fused it with bluesy guitars and Turner’s tales of late night revelry. Like many Americans, I appreciated the Monkeys before AM, but I didn’t really love them until “Do I Wanna Know?” became a ubiquitous presence on rock radio and in commercials. Finally, here was a song that drew from T. Rex and 50 Cent simultaneously, pinpointing the shared elements that lead to wanton bumping and grinding, making it a perfect artifact for this era of effortless hybridization. One of the decade’s great rock records. AM also bolstered the Monkeys’ rep as the rare rock act to appeal to both traditionalists (AM is one of the best selling vinyl records of the ’10s) and the streaming generation (“Do I Wanna Know?” is closing in on a half-billion spins).
Now, Arctic Monkeys stand out as a leading example of an endangered species: The very popular, and archetypal, arena rock band. If your dad can’t wrap his head around Imagine Dragons being classified as rock, and also can’t be bothered to give the epic but introspective The War On Drugs a chance, then Arctic Monkeys perfectly play the part of swaggering, leather-jacketed rock stars.
It’s a testament to the band’s suddenly unique niche that nobody has really threatened its position in the five years since AM, in spite of a long hiatus from touring. This summer, when Arctic Monkeys finally head back on the road, they’ll headline Lollapalooza — if they still don’t seem quite famous enough in America to justify that slot, just try finding another rock band right now who at least seems like they should be closing out the night of a major American music festival.
If Arctic Monkeys are concerned about maintaining their big time rawk status, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino — and, yes, Turner does manage to turn that cumbersome phrase into a catchy chorus on the title track — betrays no outward impulse to repeat the sultry formulas of AM.
Whereas its predecessor teems with snarling guitars and stomping drums, Tranquility Base is centered on Turner’s Steinway piano, a gift for his 30th birthday that provided the album’s unlikely catalyst. While guitars haven’t been completely banished, Turner’s clanging keys create the album’s most dominant sounds. The result is a record that still resides solidly in the rock column, but the reference points have shifted from rap and ’70s glam to arch, crooner-y torch songs, the sort that David Bowie mastered on Hunky Dory and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds have reiterated time and again since The Good Son. It’s a left turn that feels like a positive shift away from the “youth” part of the band’s career, and towards something a little more grown-up and a lot stranger.
In a recent interview with Billboard, Turner cited Dion’s Born To Be With You as one of the album’s primary influences. A druggy, after-hours song cycle produced with characteristic bombast by Phil Spector, Born To Be With You is filled with languorous, funereal-paced ballads in which the past-his-prime Dion ruminates on the state of career and love life. It’s a beautiful if also somewhat confounding record that appeals most to aficionados of ’70s LA excess.
Tranquility Base doesn’t have the largesse of the Dion record, which includes as many as 10 guitarists playing live on the same song. But Turner — who started the album by himself in his LA studio, before inviting the band to flesh out the tracks in Paris — is after a similarly debauched vibe of spiritual disaffection, though updated for an age of tech-addled, dystopian boredom.
The songs don’t offer any obvious or immediate hooks, instead lounging away lackadaisically on a bed of clipped keys and draggy drums as Turner ruminates on sex, current events, pop culture, and the digital chill of omnipresent technology. “The exotic sound of data storage, nothing like it first thing in the morning,” he deadpans in “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip,” a woozy psych-pop stunner that sounds like Thom Yorke rewiring Pet Sounds. In “Golden Trunks,” in which a lovely piano melody duels with a surly fuzz-guitar, Turner nods to the president of the United States, “who reminds you of a wrestler.” But this is hardly an overtly political record. The only “statement” of Tranquility Base is how modern communication systems tend to shred coherent thoughts, chopping and screwing them into surreal and divisive nonsense. Like in the spooky “Science Fiction,” where Turner mixes references to Rainer Werner Fassbender’s World On A Wire and Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” over a chicken-scratch guitar and a porno-movie bassline, a muddled stew of allusions that somehow coalesces.
Turner has mentioned ’70s sci-fi as another inspiration, but his stream-of-consciousness lyrics — which juxtapose the funny and the frightening with the casual ease of a social media feed — feel more like science reality. As usual, Turner is a disarming writer: In “Four Out Of Five,” a snarky tango that reimagines The Boatman’s Call as a concept album about Yelp.com, he mock-raves about how “cute new places keep on popping up, since the exodus it’s all getting gentrified,” and then dances drunkenly at the bodega to a smoky guitar solo. And the music — plush and luxurious, and utterly unlike any other Arctic Monkeys record while still feeling like a logical progression from AM‘s “rock with a hip-hop sensibility” aesthetic — is equally seductive, evoking the long, smooth tracking shots from Kubrick’s 2001.
But the cumulative effect of this album, unmistakably, is dread. Turner and company have created a sophisticated play-land to indulge their adult fantasies, whether they originate in the stars above or the stars of bygone Hollywood. But transmissions from the outside world keep seeping in, and they’re nonsensical and insane, and dull, and probably spell out at the end of the world. If only we had just The Strokes to worry about.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is out on May 11 via Domino. Buy it here.