It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the pre-Conde’ Nast Pitchfork Media followed its own singular instincts. It was a site that rarely took into account the cultural group-think surrounding a particular record, band, rapper, etc., often not even stooping so low as to acknowledge it, simply offering its own fresh and often contrarian viewpoints. I know, I know, when mired on the terrifying lilypad of 2018 it may be hard to see all the way to the sunny, funner side of the lake, but just keep in mind that this was a site that once:
- Invited R. Kelly to headline its music festival and regularly gave the pied piper of R&B’s records their coveted Best New Music tag
- Took the underage and probation-bound Chief Keef to a gun range for a filmed interview during the height of a bloody summer of Chicago gun violence (Sosa got locked up for a while in the aftermath)
- Posted a video of a monkey pissing in its own mouth to serve as a Jet review
- Started seemingly random feuds with certain artists (Deer Tick, for example) where they would COMPLETELY SAVAGE their otherwise critically acclaimed albums with a personal-sounding fury, going as far as to spout wild accusations within said reviews that drew out clap backs and even threats of violence from the bands themselves
- Played a massive role in making the career of the anarchic, blood-splattered, homophobic/abusive/rapey/etc. LA fire breathers Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Em All
We could do the whole alphabet with this list, but it would be much more fun for you to check the archives and the Wayback Machine to pick out some oldschool evil Fork gems of your own. The point here is that the currently woke as fuck, shiny pop obsessed, PR agency blowing Pitchfork Media was at one point something more akin to the early Vice Magazine, with one foot in the cultural gutter and the other firmly rooted in contrarian music snobbishness that often swam against the waves of popular thought.
Which is why a review like this one is so refreshing.
To understand exactly why the review is so indicative of the oldschool Fork you must have a basic understanding Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’s unique circumstances and the head-scratching anti-art mob that has drawn and quartered this mere pop record since its release last Friday. We’ll give you the CliffsNotes:
- The Arctic Monkeys are a world-beating monster of a rock band, with the key word here being “rock”. On all of their previous world-beating monster rock records, they specialized hook-heavy rock songs with guitars well in the forefront.
- This record is not that at all. It is a lunar-themed lounge crooner album with cryptic, slowly-unfolding lyrics and Serge Gainsbourg-meets-David Bowie overtones. There may be a guitar solo here and there, but piano, synths, and Alex Turner’s words are way out front at all times.
- The reaction to this record from the majority of British people can be summed up as, “Blimey! Wots this space keyboard shite, mate? Not very proper, innit? Can we get some rock bangers about crisps and lagered up lads runnin’ from taxis, please?”
- On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Americans took a nine second break from refreshing their Trump newsfeeds to type things such as “meh” and “that ‘barge of great TV’ line better not be about me” and “I can’t see myself waving my phone in the air to this at Coachella anytime soon” into the social media vacuum.
- Oh that bristly breed. You could just hear them cracking their knuckles when this record dropped, skipping through the first 30 seconds of each track, already formulating one liners like, “Alex Turner’s long fruitless journey in search of a chorus” or “makes Last Of The Shadow Puppets seem like Motorhead”. For a really great example that hits upon nearly all of the ultra-reactionary reviews spewed forth from the spiked gates of Critic Kingdom, check out Stereogum’s premature evaluation of the record that sounds like some dude in a cutoff denim jacket shouting “DISCO SUCKS” after someone moves the FM dial away from “Back In Black”.
In his startlingly brazen review, Jazz Monroe brushes all of those reactionary torches and pitchforks aside and kicks up the ghostly dust of Fork’s past by concentrating solely on the music at hand and applauding an artistic left turn.
The single most inspiring category of music criticism is the review where the critic is noticeably awed by the content, letting down the twin guards of objectivity and jadedness wielded by critics the world over. Jazz is very obviously entranced with the equally dark and funny lyrical realm meticulously constructed by Alex Turner on this record. In just one tangle of words in the front half of the review he expertly corners this slippery lyrical imagery much better than Mr. Turner himself has in the press cycle leading up to the record’s release, praising the lead Monkey for “splicing together hyperrealist satire, sham biography, and interstellar escapism” and pointing out how “glints of social commentary yield to the whims of his narrators—forgetful, distractible oddballs and drunk egomaniacs who have no right to be so captivating.” Here he hits upon a point missed entirely by all of the major reviews of this record: Alex Turner is playing a character, many characters actually, interchanging them over the course of a song or sometimes within the same verse. What the lesser critics label “disjointed” or “scattered” Monroe easily recognizes as “Turner’s fixation on worlds-within-worlds, the way one story can collapse into another. It’s a component of his ruptured reality, traceable to any number of preoccupations—fluid truth in the fake-news era, the wonderland of L.A., the distorting effects of celebrity or cocaine.”
Monroe’s praises here are so fluid, so sure of themselves, that the review reads like something written looking back from 20 or 30 years into the future, focusing on a once misunderstood but now universally praised work of art. It’s refreshing and revelatory especially next to the clickbait, regressive screed Stereogum put out just days earlier. That site should shut itself down for a week as self-punishment after reading this from Monroe’s pen:
“(The record is) a delirious and artful satire directed at the foundations of modern society. This is not an act of protest: Implicated in its sprawl are gentrification, consumerism, and media consumption, but rather than address these meaty topics, (Turner) strafes around them, admiring their transformation in the laboratory of his word tricks.”
Another thing suspiciously missing from most of the other reviews, which tend to either get tripped up on the lyrics or start smacking themselves in the face trying to figure out WHY the Monkeys aren’t rocking and WHERE the pompadours have gone, is the musical bed on which Turner’s run-on sentence prophecy floats. After all, this thing would just be open mic spoken word without it. Monroe manages to nail it in just one sentence, and extra props for not combining the words “space” and “piano” like every other critic hand-picked to “put Turner back in his place” last week. “The music borrows from that mid-’70s moment when the Walker Brothers resembled an avant-garde funeral band.” Indeed it does. “Like David Bowie descending on a lunar wedding.” Yes, that too.
Sidestepping the serrated industry jadedness that has crept into even the more respectful reviews of this record, Monroe scores infinite points by taking Turner at face value when he knows full well the guy was most likely giggling to himself after every take. “It’s intriguing to hear Turner in this hallucinogenic state, oscillating between abstraction and narrative. His first-person encounters are inscrutable free-association, yet the absurdities ring true. It’s not until you’re lured into his headspace that this dissonant poetry begins to align with our dissonant reality.” While this record brought out the “thirsty for blood and pompadour jokes” gang mentality in most five-cents-per-word critics, in Jazz Monroe it sparked a genuine desire to understand. Links are drawn to disparate influences from Foster Wallace to Postman to Borges to Cooper Clarke to the two musicians who have treaded into this same type of musical magical thinking: Serge Gainsbourg and Jarvis Cocker. Where Stereogum sees run-on sentences that never resolve themselves, Jazz Monroe sees a hyper-literate, yet non pretentious, stab in the dark for the flesh of legend.
Many a hack has decried the lack of singles on this record, the lack of spikey riffs, the alleged (but untrue) lack of hooks. Monroe counters by singling out the sheer bravery of going against one’s own lucrative brand in the name of art, or even just to try something new. “The results of this experiment will divide, delight, bemuse, and bewilder various factions of their sizable fan base, particularly disciples of its bluesy predecessor. No singles teed up Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, and for good reason: Barely anything here invites casual consumption. There is plenty that actively resists it, and that’s probably the point.” So while those other sites instantly leaped into a market-defensive buffalo stance at the very sight of this noncommercial beast invading the crumbling industry, Jazz Monroe attempts to understand its language and finds great beauty in its more bristly features.
It is quite obvious from the start that this review was not approached with an agenda in mind. It isn’t a planted PR piece nor is it influenced in any way, shape, or form by the cavalcade of mostly misleading verbiage spilled over the record in its early days. Although it goes firmly against the grain of those reviews, it isn’t in any way a reaction to them. It all rings true. If Jazz Monroe had hated this record he would have said so. He was obviously touched by this thing, held spellbound by it in the short time he was allotted to spin it and write his piece, and set off to weave his feelings into a review that is nearly as soaring and magisterial as the album itself.
As his subject laments about the corner of an imaginary moon colony “getting gentrified”, with this wide-eyed and contrarian review Jazz Monroe proves there still may be some flavorful dives hidden within the high-priced Conde’ Nast realm the Fork now inhabits.