Of course people don’t like the new Arctic Monkeys record, Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino, unleashed last week to savagely mixed reviews after a nearly five-year absence from that rarest of all modern-day beasts: a superstar rock group. This distinction is important. The Arctic Monkeys are real deal rock stars of the European stadium-rocking, festival headlining, pyrotechnics and pompadours variety, which is about as rare as a girl at a hardcore show in this Year Of Our Lord 2018. The Arctic Monkeys don’t chase social media followers. The band members don’t craft think pieces or essays on Brexit or other sociopolitical matters. Alex Turner isn’t angling for songwriting credits on the next Bey surprise release. They aren’t interested in going viral since this band makes real deal hits. The Arctic Monkeys are held aloft by a mythology that was not entirely self-created from an Instagram story or Youtube vids. It’s as if Led Zeppelin mixed some fine china white with one too many ludes backstage at the Santa Monica Civic Center one night in 1975, awakening in 2018 to a changed world much lamer and more stifling than the one they had just left, but instead of fearing the new landscape or trying to join it they simply dust themselves off, toss on some chunky turquoise jewelry, and assume their rightful position as Emperors over all the modern chatter and mire.
The Monkey’s last missive, AM, was tightly wound dynamite that went all the way off in America after nearly a decade of “big in the UK, playing clubs in Detroit” syndrome. And they somehow managed to do it utilizing their own alchemy instead of the Big Album templates artists had to follow in 2014. There was no hip-hop anywhere in sight and no guest spots from Taylor. It was just one swaggering rock banger after another. Any song on the record could have been a single. These were tracks that made suburban office workers curl their lips and look to see if they still had that dealer’s number from years ago. The Appetite For Destruction of the 2010s. This was the type of monster rock album that becomes an unstoppable force, causing a formerly scruffy/spotty gaggle of lads to instantaneously sprout pompadours and cuffed pants and white shoes and to hit festival headliner spotlight poses as hundreds of thousands lose their shit waving lighters instead of iPhones. The Arctic Monkeys weren’t dinosaurs who came up in the 70s, 80s, 90s, early 2000s limping along on nostalgia fumes. These guys hit the U2 stratosphere during an era that offered the slimmest of chances for doing so, constructing a 70s-style rock star comet with their bare hands and watching it streak across an increasingly forbidding sky.
And this is the problem with Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino.
The masses thirsted for another banger, longing to be burned by the sparks of another low-flying comet. They wanted more “her lips are like a galaxy’s edge” universal sex lyrics. They wanted those pompadours. They wanted the “chips and lagers” boys done good. They wanted confirmation that a phenomenon like the Arctic Monkeys of Summer 2014 could still exist within the lacerating vacuum currents of 2018.
Well, Alex Turner and crew didn’t give it to them. And for this they should be hailed ten times over.
Even if this album wasn’t a thing of sheer brilliance on par with Melody Nelson or I’m Your Man (which it is), the move would be commendable. To follow your artistic impulses away from the firmly established brand characteristics familiar to your millions of followers is a completely insane thing to do in 2018. This isn’t 1972. Bands can’t just smash out an album and then take to the road for another sold out arena tour on the strength of their back catalog. New releases from major artists are analyzed to within an inch of their lives in the digital slipstream. To take a hard left in 2018 is quite literally career suicide in the form of thousands upon thousands of stinging blue check mark comments and flabbergasted, up-in-arms Big Music Site reviews. To just not give a fuck about, or even more impressive to not even notice, this type of fan and critical pushback is some true renegade shit of the Dylan 65 vintage, and with their new record the Arctic Monkeys have truly entered this rarefied airspace.
For the youngest rock flexers on the planet have delivered a languid, lunar lounge lizard record that has the feel of a chance meeting between Serge Gainsbourg and David Bowie on a small stage in a brothel bar orbiting Pluto. There are lyrics such as “What do you mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?” and “All of my most muscular regrets explode behind my eyes like American sports”. There are wide swaths of 70s sleaze that land profoundly alien soft punches against the puritan exterior of today’s social climate. There is a story here, a concept of sorts, that is hard to unwind in one listen. Like the best novelists, Alex Turner builds a world within a world within a world within a world. This thing is many realms deep. Characters show up on the peripheries only to be killed off and then return as ghosts as the record unwinds at an unhurried, densely-narrative pace. There is celestial pain and slashing humor and cold decadence in equal measures, not to mention the type of resigned wisdom it takes a face-to-face meeting with the devil to achieve. Alex Turner has met many devils in his still-young life, of the entertainment industry type and the peripheral kind that come creeping in with the first rays of success, and he gently coos to them on each song of this properly strange, off-kilter, and incredibly pure work of art. The Arctic Monkeys couldn’t help but make this record. Alex Turner had to croon these lyrics. When the old guitars return to the forefront on a track such as “She Looks Like Fun”, you even get the sense that they may have wished to make another AM when they set out to record this thing, visions of new house extensions floating under those pompadours, but they just couldn’t. It wasn’t where they were at. So they went with how they felt, and this is about as pure and honest a thing as can be done in an ultra-cynical time like the present.
To unleash a work that is intended to be listened to in its entirety is a fool’s errand in May 2018. We are many dark years past The Age Of The Album. It’s all clicks, clicks, clicks, maximized content, individual streams, viral tracks and snippets, mere sound bites in orbit. Analyzing long form records? That’s some Pitchfork shit right there. Yet in the face of this vortex the Arctic Monkeys have gone and delivered a record truly made to be played from beginning-to-end, a record that in fact makes no sense when the tracks are isolated or broken apart. This thing is lovingly and meticulously arranged, curated, from the opening piano bops of “Star Treatment” to Turner’s closing exhausted moan on “the Ultracheese”. Treating the present dark spring as if it were 1968 is an obnoxiously admirable position to take for a band of the Arctic Monky’s status, to put great efforts into something that will most likely not be appreciated or even noticed by a wide portion of their listeners. They did this because they wanted to do it. They did it for the love of it. They followed the fickle muse away from the gated community avenues of success fully available to them. And they did so defiantly. “So when you gaze at planet Earth from outer space, does it wipe that stupid look off your face?” Judging by the reaction of their core audience, this blast from space hasn’t wiped the stupid looks off their faces just yet. But then again it was just a question. Alex Turner doesn’t really seem to give a single fuck about the answer.
From within the slinky grooves of this record Alex Turner takes some subtle kicks at the hornet’s nest of modern social etiquette, risking some stings in the process. As the Arcade Fire crew found out just recently, to hold a mirror up to the social media stratosphere is to risk great scorn and derision. Apparently nobody let the Arctic Monkeys know that this is 2018 and you have to drop at least something about, like, police abuse or at least third world debt or something just to be safe. You have to be relatable. Alex Turner is fascinatingly non-relatable over the course of this record. “And I never thought. Not in a million years,” he lets us know. “That I’d meet this many Lolas.” What is he singing about here? About meeting models, obviously. A white “indie” musician singing about meeting models is just not allowed at the present moment. Rappers? Sure. But white boys with guitars are expected to be humble, socially aware, harmless like Whitney at an anti-Trump march. Alex Turner is absolutely none of these things on this record, weaving intriguingly cryptic and starkly haunted tales of Calabasas swimming pools and luxury spaceships and stardust cocaine in the face of considerable backlash potential.
And the backlash has indeed begun. Online, long-term Monkeys fanatics are lashing forth with their, “What is this space keyboard shiiite, mate? Get the lads back to Sheffield for some lagers and dodged cabs, innit?” invective and Stereogum has criticized the “lyrics forward” approach and distinct lack of 2014-style riffs (shoutout to Jazz Monroe at Pitchfork, though, who seems to understand). The record has already been tagged with the dreaded “mixed reaction” label that will haunt it forever and on into infinity.There are most likely think pieces with the word “entitled” in their headlines being typed to life as we speak. The Boys, or at least their management, had to know what they were getting into here. But they did it anyway, expertly crafting a multi-level monument so towering it can’t be seen properly by earth-bound present day natives but will be admired by future generations from the moon’s surface. Not only is Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino a dark and absorbingly messy deepspace gem of an album, it’s one of the bravest pieces of art to be let loose by a major artist in 2018.
“Cute new spaces keep on popping up, since the exodus, it’s all getting gentrified,” Alex Turner laments in the chorus of the closest thing to an accessible single on this record, winking knowingly as he leads you further and further away from those overpriced juiceries and ethnic fusion restaurants and into unknown outer quadrants gleaming with strange possibilities.
You’d be making a mistake not to follow him.