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Arctic Monkeys: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino Album Review

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Arctic Monkeys: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino Album Review

Alex Turner wrote Arctic Monkeys’ sixth album in Los Angeles on an upright piano in his spare room. As it took shape, he christened his makeshift studio the Lunar Surface, after the theory that Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landing on a soundstage. When Turner assembled his bandmates, they were alarmed to find he’d applied this concept literally: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a song suite documenting a futuristic moon colony and the exodus that spawned it, told by an assortment of unreliable narrators who can sometimes barely string a sentence together. After 2013’s wildly successful AM, Turner is now writing lyrics in an entirely new idiom, swapping witty sleaze for absurdist suave.

Against the odds, the resulting LP finds the former street poet at his most visionary: material only he could write, performed with a charm and bravado that only he could pull off. He veers from croons to falsetto, splicing together hyperrealist satire, sham biography, and interstellar escapism. 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.

At a studio in an old Parisian mansion, the band dreamed up an alluring retro-futurist backdrop for Turner’s inventions. Harpsichords, vintage keyboards, and space-age synths are cobwebbed together. The music borrows from that mid-’70s moment when the Walker Brothers resembled an avant-garde funeral band, while Turner sings drolly surreal one-liners and play-acts as a vanquished lounge singer. To round off the lunar alienation, he spliced his studio renditions with the raw, eccentric vocal demos he’d been recording at home.

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.

Turner, who is 32, has lately immersed himself in a pair of books often cited as shorthand for our modern condition: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Unlike Father John Misty, another acolyte of this pop-philosophical literature, Turner threads their ideas into quiet storms of insinuation rather than didactic frenzies. “Everybody’s on a barge floating down the endless stream of great TV,” he riffs on “Star Treatment,” one of his sassier nods to our current predicament—what Wallace called the “strange objectless unease” of immersion in visual media.

Turner later references Postman’s “information-action ratio,” the idea that our access to endless information has created a harmful international consciousness: In deciding what to care about, we are paralyzed by choice, and so care a little about everything, rather than a lot about what’s important. On “Four Out of Five,” the “Information-Action Ratio” is the name of a rooftop taqueria in Turner’s rapidly gentrifying moon colony. This is one of his pet topics, how consumerism can co-opt a salient critique and use it to sell you new stuff. Whether or not he’d accept the term, he’s descended into a kind of capitalist ennui, borne out in a sharp line crooned on “Batphone”: “I launch my fragrance called Integrity/I sell the fact that I can’t be bought.”

Even Turner’s trademark nostalgia, once fixed on ice-cream vans and “trackie bottoms tucked in socks,” gets a top-down reinvention. On album highlight “Star Treatment,” he glams up like David Bowie descending on a lunar wedding. After recalling a time when he “just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” Turner drifts into a romantic fantasy about an ex and re-emerges in their back seat, a ghost in the rear-view mirror, before taking an elevator down to Earth to resume his “make-believe residency” as a “lounge singer shimmer.” In an age of hyper-communication and rolling-news anxiety, 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.

That dissonance reappears in 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. Those same lines between reality and representation are unravelling in his Lunar Surface home-studio analogy, in the songs-within-songs of “Star Treatment,” “Science Fiction,” and “The Ultracheese,” and in the hand-carved model of a hotel-casino on the record’s cover, which Turner likens to the scaled-down replicas that hotels display in their own lobbies. He has the air of a lounge-lizard Borges, a meticulous analyst with the gloriously caddish spirit of Serge Gainsbourg, John Cooper Clarke, and Jarvis Cocker rolled into one.

Perhaps the great mystery of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is not its knotty themes or cryptic lyrics but what’s motivating Turner. With the keys to the most lucrative and well-oiled indie-rock band around, he’s regenerated Arctic Monkeys in service of 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, he strafes around them, admiring their transformation in the laboratory of his word tricks. In the end, his helpless struggle for meaning is what makes him relatable. For all this record’s hubris, the long-touted “generational voice” that is Alex Turner has never sounded more real, or more himself.

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