In space, no one can fix your problems.
I guess I just missed the memo. Yet somehow over the past few years it’s nearly to be expected to release, in my own term, a destination album. An album totally built on the concept, themes, and atmosphere of a specific place and time. Take for instance last years’ Grammy Nominated Melodrama by Lorde. A piece of art that alludes to a constant party Lorde find herself in, which symbolizes the disrupting and lonely perspective that accompanies it. This year’s Blue Madonna by Børns was slightly more exotic in location, with Madonna taking place at a beach resort. A place that figuratively described his once romantic courtship with fame. So, the question is, how does one top such critically and commercially acclaimed trips and experiences as these? You take it out of this world, by gosh. And that’s exactly what Alex Turner and the Monkeys have done, they’ve gone and made a futuristic resort in space. The Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, no less (destination; the moon).
Before we visit the sites, one ought to catch up with our friends the Arctic Monkey’s. If you’re like me, their odd name would be one followed by laughter until the era of AM. I know, I know. For all you die-hards out there, that is a disheartening statement. Do I wish I had discovered them previously? Sure, but one can only control so much. I’m no loyal fanatic by any sense of the imagination, but Humbug has become one of my tops, and AM too still holds a special place in my heart. This 60-70’s call-back group has taken many by storm nonetheless with their old school rock persona. Leaving the likes of their fans in suspense for nearly 5 years for them to resurface, but who could have known it came with an out of this world experience?
I suppose in many ways, Tranquility Base is the answer to hardnosed critics who once accused the Monkeys of going commercial with AM. Because no trace of easy listening rock, palatable melodies, and cohesive choruses remain. What is left in the fog is a transformed group of men in both tone, instrumentation, and even aesthetic. Everything has in a sense been wiped clean to make room for this highly admirable concept album that takes place in a 60’s themed space setting. While the boys have always stood apart as wholly unique in respects to their trademarked blended British and American Western rock tunes, witty and nonconforming threaded lyrics, and even a sense of small venue jazz aspects. But this time those idiosyncrasies have been taken to town for a whole new meaning of the term “classic.”
The album kicks off in what I can merely describe as a trip (the stumble, not the adventure). It feels as if the music was already playing once you entered the room. Its small, subdued, and nearly distant vocals projected by Alex (who evidently recorded much of the album in an empty stadium to create this flair) are a sure surprise. The Star Treatment kicks off with a loud warning, and it paints you a picture upfront that Arabella and R U Mine are neither here. It’s a track that slowly builds (as do many of them) to a sense of a Sinatra and Beatles mixed live performance. To make our shock settle momentarily, next we are transported to One Point Perspective, in which we get the best combined sounds and moods of the entire album combined. It is a thrill of a song that infuses breezy jazz beats with some incredible bass chords that slay in every term. It is suave, vintage, funky, and I love it to pieces. This song is far and away my favorite, and one that will give you an easier transition for what’s to come, science fiction (not the song, that is track #7). Because instantaneously, as you feel like you are warming up to this classic sound, you are disrupted by classic sci-fi synthetic sounds that reminisces that of a Twilight Zone score from an episode on Mars. Those heavy electric infusions may very well be the departure for many fans, seeing as that they are backed with the smoke lounge feel from this moment forward. I’ll be upfront with you, if you love this album upon first listen, I either give you props, or else accuse you of blind devotion. This album is stylistically and uniformly disjointing in every sense of the word. Right when you get used to a feel or mood, they swoop in with a haunted house sci fi sensation in the likes of Golden Trunks and Batphone. Or else, add in infusions of Italian riviera and carnival cords that add to layers of unease in The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip. And of course, unless you haven’t already guessed, the electric guitar riffs that were a staple on AM are few and far between. They have been replaced by the 60’s toned electric piano melody, as well as music box-like jingles that seems to be Turner’s muse. In short, this album is meant to shake you and strip this streaming experience of any ease.
What will ultimately happen next is up to you. You can either embark on this sci-fi sofa lounge and see the sites for what they are, or else give up on hope and purchase a return ticket. As of now, I have stayed, enjoyed, and have decided this incredibly brave and experimental piece is one that is admirable, immersive, but not 100%. It is helped by great build up moments in Four Stars Out of Five, that serve as a halfway reward of sorts in a Kubrick-esque melody that is cool and noir in its atmosphere. While its length is excessive, it builds toward and shows the classic guitar riffs that are a good blend of the Monkey’s new and old vibes. And might I add, that with time and patience, I have come to respect and even love many of the tracks here, as well as the relentless cohesion of moods and direction. The likes of the title track’s oddly paced chorus, as well as American Sports’ unique transitional flair add to the albums fascinating quirk appeal. My only pit fall that still remains is the albums 3rd act. While I have read many who state the record’s end contains the bravest of tracks. Presently for me however, the last few songs seem to slog and feel rather “been there, done that.” Especially in regards to the odd track She Looks Like Fun. I’ve tried to give its peculiar monster movie/drunken chant opportunity, and while the guitar work on the track is capturing, the main emphasis left no avail.
But in a thematic and content viewpoint, the album itself is likewise hairbrained. I’ve decided to sum it up to the following. The Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is the critical, sarcastic, and endless journey of the search. Let me explain. This album, much like the Monkey’s other outings, is chalk full of cleverness and jumbled appeal. Turner even admits as much. In Science Fiction he confesses, “…I’ve a feeling that the whole thing may well just end up too clever for its own good.” He wasn’t lying either. Nor in One Point Perspective, where he states, “I lost my train of thought.” I won’t lie to you, to dissect each song feels like torture. Throughout are common (and admittedly witty) sci-fi references (Blade Runner, Batman twice, Ghost Busters, and Stanley Kubrick, to name a few) and sarcastic one lines that are worthy of the term “sly.” Turner is droll, and he has no pain in demonstrating that. Of course, with said droll comes a sense of sensuality felt on occasion. While hardy as overt and graphic as some of their past albums, still a handful of risqué quips are flung around (as well as the term d***h**d and a British pronunciation for the S word in She Looks like Fun).
Yes, the album is jumbled. No question about it. Found therein are a number of references to modern politics, technology, human decency (or the lack thereof) in the social media world, commercial and critical expectations for rock bands, problems with relationships, and even the band’s own past failures or misguided expectations. That’s just the meaty stuff, I hardly have time for the fun. It’s a lot. It leaves one so overwhelmed in fact you don’t know which problem or theme to tackle first. So why not blow the whole thing off and get away, say to outer space? That perhaps is the entire point. One of the common themes, the one I feel most present, while hardly explicit, is a critique of the needs for different realities. He illustrates our modern dilemmas with our own wanting to get away to far off lands and places. It is the destination of the album, after all. Turner of course won’t play party to hypocrisy, what with admitting that he too sits there reminiscing about what he once falsely perceived his future to be. He fully admits that in some spaces he considers what he might, or else distantly has, looked like in different times of his life. It seems to be an antitype of sorts to his thinly veiled criticism of the modern technological society. How we ourselves are getting all too caught up in a social media universe, and how our manners and interactions have suffered from such deliberations. Still though, he cleverly uses it as a backboard for inventing his own science fictional setting. Admitting that science fiction in it’s very form is a creation process, wishing in our minds for different places, societies, and circumstances. But it all comes down to this, even our own made up realities and paradises are ones that we still carry our own baggage and viewpoint with us to, resulting in a mirrored and flawed reality like our own.
While I fear cutting this review short (ha!), it seems Turner and Co. are lost in a world for direction. But I believe that’s part of it. While his lyricism is all over the galaxy, he’s not nearly as scatterbrained and dysfunctional as he lets on. He’s done the time, taken note, and he’s decided our reality leaves much wanting. He sees the status quo, the new norm of young adolescence and their futuristic endeavors, and has decided rather than bash it, he’d prefer to be coy and play it out. He could encourage others to change gears and look for a lasting reality our owns each crave for, but of course he comes short of that. It is sorrowful to be sure. It has moments of slight suggestion to a new pattern, sure. It even has reflections on his own personal perspective, but he’s ultimately decided to turn it in for witty banter and a kiss or two on the moon landing. It’s not necessarily a bad rendezvous, nor thematically unintelligent, it’s just sadly defeating is all, albeit entertainingly so.