Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino (Domino)
Sorry Alex Turner, it isn’t going to work.
I can see what you’ve done here. In the telling of another’s story; in the creation of a second, third or fourth character whose actions are not yours, whose motivations are assumed to be personal to them; in the use of names, locations and ideas in common usage; in the use of “I” so freely that no one could think it was indeed one “I”, but many - it may be assumed to shift the focus away from writer to actor.
This isn’t me, Turner would tell us as we explore the Arctic Monkey’s sixth studio album, it couldn’t be and to look for it would be silly. After all, Turner arrived a decade or so ago as a chronicler of his time, indeed of his Sheffield streets. The stories reeked of truth, not just from observation but understanding and language, and the teller of truth was almost always just out of shot.
In the four albums since then, not to mention the two Last Shadow Puppets albums with buddy Miles Kane and the soundtrack to the very English coming of age film, Submarine, he’s expanded that repertoire to encompass stories of Los Angeles and New York, London and, well, anywhere people bump up against each other and amuse/horrify those watching. And Turner was watching.
Given Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is an album so dense it might be better called osmium - not just thick with characters and overflowing with lyrics but packed with cultural references, allusions, half-remembered history, overheard thoughts and topical issues – Turner could assume he’d built a wall of safety and defence around himself.
Nope. This album is the most revealing thing Turner has written. Here on display is the sceptical man who questions himself more than anyone else could, the amused observer who thinks no one is watching him laugh, the cynical man who knows the arse kissing could disappear tomorrow, the sensitive man who would prefer no one knew how much he feared that disappearance, and the one who really believes that things matter.
Whether in the song-that-feels-like-an-early-70s-film Star Treatment (given a Mandrax-enhanced, vibraphone-enriched slow burn to open the album) or the shuffled jazz noir of Batphone (odd siren guitars paired with chintzy ones, portentous bass, scattered keyboards) he wants his cake and to smear it too.
To be able to say “I must admit you gave me something momentarily in which I could believe. But the hand of harsh reality's ungloved and it's on its way back here to scoop you up/Not on my watch, I want to stay with you my love, the way some science fiction does”. But yet have the get out card of “So I tried to write a song to make you blush, but I’ve a feeling that the whole thing may well just end up too clever for its own good, the way some science fiction does”.
He’d like to be able to knowingly drop the self-contradictory but self-aware line “Finally I can share with you, through cloudy skies, every whimsical thought that enters my mind/There’s no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be.” And along the way nod to Leonard Cohen, readers of The Economist, crooners from Dean Martin to Michael Buble, a young Tom Cruise and one-upping doco film watching. And that’s just one three-minute song.
Elsewhere, the perspective changes constantly, as much as the language does. A woman tired of the wasted hours, the upwardly mobile couple who see everybody but themselves at fault for gentrifying their area, a mind lost in transit as a body scuttles over “the battleground states”, the question posed: “do you celebrate your dark side then wish you’d never left the house? Have you ever spent a generation trying to figure that one out?”. And everywhere, the corners and layers of Alex Turner’s mind.
Turner is an amazingly prolix but deceptively profound writer, or at least – and this is genius in itself, as any Bob Dylan aspirant, or any Bob Dylan fan, would know – he allows room for us to perceive/create/assume profundity. This torrent of words builds its own momentum and its own reality so that what may not work on paper, may not work in regular conversation for that matter, can feel immense and demanding micro-analysing. It’s got to be deep, right? And you just know Turner enjoys both the fact this might happen for some and the likelihood it might engender cries of pretention and façade from others.
The other thing the torrent of words does is leave little room for expansive melody. Or really any kind of rock band aesthetic. Far closer to the skivvies-and-bell-bottoms, insouciance-bordering-on-insolent Last Shadow Puppets albums than the Arctic Monkeys’ ones, Tranquility Base … plays at mid-tempo and mid-volume and emerges with few tangible hooks. That isn’t to say without appeal – or burdened with lengthy tracks either, with only two songs over five minutes and most around three minutes - just that its charms reveal themselves over time, not on approach, and even then they are low key.
There’s a hazy, weaving, late ‘60s Beach Boys feel to Golden Trunks that draws you in slowly rather than catching your ear; Four Out Of Five pushes that haziness into some alcohol-blurred bar band covering U2 that never reaches the end of the set, or the night; and One Point Perspective is a kind of natural extension of this, creating a moment of late night crooner meets early rising worker that begins with simple piano, skirts the groove with a fluid bassline, gives Turner’s falsetto a run over shimmering chords and lets its fuzzed guitar solo drift into Hollywood-lite strings.
In some ways the album – lyrically and musically - works it way, or makes inevitable, its closing number, The Ultracheese, which pulls itself in to the room like a delicate head the morning after a significant night before. Or maybe a life being lived in retrospect by “a fictional character from a place they called America in the golden age”.
The tempo is half slurred, the piano rolling around the occasionally roused bass and the guitar making like a George Jones song is in the offing, perfect for a story where Turner puts you in that half-shut in room and lets you come to.
“Get freaked out from a knock at the door, when I haven’t been expecting one/Didn’t that used to be part of the fun once upon a time?” he sings, adding later “I’ve still got pictures of friends on the wall, I might look as if I’m deep in thought/But the truth is I’m probably not, if I ever was.”
It’s not Turner’s story. Obviously. It’s not Turner at all. Probably. It’s just another observation and amusement. Of course.