A lot has changed since 2013. 5 years may as well have been a lifetime ago, especially given the incessant, eminently changeable turbulence of the past few years. When Arctic Monkeys released “AM” into those mists of time, the narrative framing the record was one of triumph and finality—the home-grown wunderkinds finally cracking America, and sailing off into some implied sunset. Thus, the real question is now what to do with the world now that it sits in the palm of your hand? What comes after the credits?
Thankfully, the band have transformed what could have easily lapsed into an epilogue into the opening act of some strange new chapter. Rather than settling into stasis, the band have treated success not as a straightjacket but a blank cheque, questing off into unexpected sonic vistas in perhaps their most off-kilter, studiedly wry release. The clipped hip-hop grooves of “AM” are out in favour of faded-glamour piano balladry, spacey jazziness and a seemingly endless stream of absurdist lyrical non-sequiturs—“My virtual reality mask is stuck on ‘Parliament Brawl’” intones Turner on the hallucinatory sway of “American Sports”, and croons of a “Swamp monster with a hard-on for connectivity” on the Captain-Scarlet-meets-Black-Mirror balladry of “Science Fiction”. This is the space age filtered through the low-res, coked-out excess of the ‘70s: “karate bandana, warp speed chic, hair down to there, impressive moustache”.
But the future isn’t what it used to be, and such an album becomes strikingly anomalous in the media landscape of 2018. “Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino” seems almost precision-tooled to shear off the band’s casual fans in its careful maintenance of a mid-tempo docility, with even the impish lilt of lead single “Four out of Five” only ramping up the intensity as it draws to a climax. Turner’s washed-up lounge-lizard persona is a knowing extension of the greaser sex god facade of “AM”, and on first listen the album is spun into relative impassivity by the spongy vagueness its musical elements merge into, which the cavernous, swampy production does no favours. This complete dearth of clarity and immediacy will guarantee the album divisiveness, but over successive listens certain elements gradually begin to rise into focus: the gorgeous intersection of chords and melody on “Golden Trunks”, or the mellow beauty of the chorus of the ludicrously named “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip”.
While the album’s retro musical stylings can become exasperating in their traditionalism, when viewed in the context of Arctic Monkeys’ discography this album is anything but traditional. Almost completely shedding the angular hooks that made their name, the “Pet Sounds” by way of “Moonraker” aesthetic here is complemented by a level of lyrical density and richness unusual even for Turner. Whether it’s the final frontier or not, it’s certainly an intriguing left turn. CO
Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHMBJ2do1XU