The early reports on this sixth Arctic Monkeys record suggest that it’s closer to an Alex Turner solo effort than any of the previous five. Assuming, of course, that it’s still him.
Perhaps the cod-American accent that he debuted at Glastonbury back in 2013, the one that made him sound like south Yorkshire’s premier Elvis impersonator, wasn’t just the result of him moving to the Hollywood Hills. Throughout ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’, he shifts shape constantly. ‘Four Out of Five’ has him welcoming us to the rooftop taqueria he’s running; on the title track, meanwhile, he answers the phone at the eponymous resort’s front desk with “Mark speaking, please tell me, how may I direct your call?” He claims to have “played to quiet rooms like this before” on ‘One Point Perspective’, which would be a peculiar admission from the frontman of a band that have been one of the biggest in the world in the decade-plus since their first album was released and that, even before that, played most of their early shows in front of a vocal cult following.
Most telling, perhaps, is how ‘Tranquility Base…’s opening track casts Turner. “Maybe I was a little too wild in the ’70s / back down to earth with a lounge singer shimmer” isn’t the standout line on ‘Star Treatment’ – that award goes to the first of many glorious non-sequiturs on the record, “what do you mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?” – but it is the one that sets the tone for the rest of the album. He does sound like a lounge singer all of a sudden, and he does, improbably, pull it off with verve.
As much as Arctic Monkeys have aggressively pursued reinvention ever since the moody desert rock stylings of 2009’s ‘Humbug’, this seems like a proper turn up for the books; Turner was appropriating the faux-macho swagger of that record’s producer, Josh Homme, on ‘AM’ five years ago. Now, on ‘Tranquility Base’, he’s a jazz singer prone to moments of high camp.
Impressionism hangs heavy over the record. Turner penned its eleven songs on the piano for the first time, having been gifted a Steinway Vertegrand by his manager, and did so alone; as has been suggested elsewhere, the inevitable end product is a pretty singular one. Turner’s labelmate, Jamie Hince of The Kills, once said that if you lock a man in an empty room with a guitar, he’ll always end up writing the blues, and on the evidence of ‘Tranquility Base’, doing the same with a piano will always bring things back to jazz. Turner told Rolling Stone that he simply pursued “the places my fingers would naturally fall on the keys”, and there’s a strong sense that he’s allowed himself here to be guided by instinct, spurred on musically by the Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier records he was listening to and, more than ever before, absorbing words and phrases by osmosis to produce more of a stream-of-consciousness lyrical style than we’ve heard from him previously.
The piano is only one factor in the construction of the overall sound of ‘Tranquility Base’, and most of the parts that Turner wrote on it are incredibly simple; twinkly lines on ‘Star Treatment’, one-note progressions on both ‘One Point Perspective’ and ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip’, and soft bluesiness on closer ‘The Ultracheese’ (which, incidentally, namechecks Steinway & Sons). Crucial, too, is the uncanny wobble that the reverb on Turner’s vocals lends to his delivery, particularly when he’s flitting between guttural menace and airy almost-falsetto on ‘American Sports’ or near-growling his way through ‘Science Fiction’. It all adds up to a record heavily influenced by the kitsch, weirder side of ’60s pop, with the occasional foray into glam-rock (‘Four Out of Five’) and sludge riffery (‘Golden Trunks’) – on those cuts, there’s ghostly echoes of ‘AM”s languid strut.
If all of that sounds like it might alienate the large swathes of the band’s fanbase that have come to expect some form of rock and roll poise, they might find solace in Turner’s wordplay, which remains as endearingly mischievous as ever – even if it does feel as if it was born of the same freeform approach as the rest of ‘Tranquility Base’. Anybody expecting linear narrative or incisive commentary is going to be let down, but that isn’t to say that we don’t get a glimpse into Turner’s subconscious. Choice ideas that have been repeated ad infinitum in the present political climate have forced their way through, so that there’s references to the fluidity of the truth, battleground states, and a parallel drawn between Trump’s demeanour and that of his friends in the WWE.
There’s a fascination with technology, too, that sounds more like morbid curiosity than advocacy; “technological advances really bloody get me in the mood,” snarls Turner on the title track, the sarcasm palpable, whilst on ‘She Looks Like Fun’, we’re advised that “no one’s on the street – we moved it all online as of March.” Turner talked about having been influenced by rap’s lyricism when he was writing ‘AM’, particularly that trick that rappers have of dropping in rhymes that cleverly loop back thematically to the previous one, but that’s gone well and truly by the wayside here, with ambiguity rife and the conversational style so consistent that at one point, he pauses for a second: “bear with me, man, I’ve lost my train of thought.”
‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’ is not going to be to everybody’s tastes, it’s likely to divide the casual listeners and the diehards. In that respect, the writing was on the wall when it was announced there’d be no singles released ahead of its release. There was a reason for that – there aren’t any. This is a record that is massively of-a-piece, that glides by at a deliberate pace, and on which any given individual track wouldn’t work outside of the musical context that the others around it provide it. Turner’s narrator would tell you that’s the point – that this is an album to luxuriate in, and that shouldn’t be overthought. Honestly, though, that’d do a disservice to the sheer ambition of it.