Secret Meeting score: 80
by Philip Moss and Joseph Purcell
After almost five years since their last LP, AM, Arctic Monkeys return with their eagerly awaited sixth studio album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. The record, which started life as a set of eight track home recordings by songwriter-in-chief, Alex Turner (many of the songs’ final version feature elements captured during the demo process), was allegedly slated for a debut solo album. But after starting work on the songs with guitarist, Jamie Cook, back in February 2017, the destiny for the tracks changed.
Alex Turner’s ability to make astute social commentary has led to many christening him the poet laureate of contemporary indie rock. And while opening track Star Treatment shows a stark move in lyrical direction, the wordsmithery immediately stands out. Almost Jarvis-esque, Turner opens the record with the killer line, ‘I just wanted to be one of The Strokes’, over a musical backdrop reminiscent of James Bond – music you could imagine drifting through a 1950’s smoke filled gentleman’s club. This is a smooth customer, like the mature, older brother of The Last Shadow Puppets’ single, The Age Of The Understatement – which offered so much promise, but was a promise he never went onto fulfil… until now.
The band already seem at ease with their new sound as the record floats into second track, One Point Perspective, which is much more about the collective strength rather than the competing sum of its parts. This is an album that will prove divisive among both critics and diehard fans. But, after Britain’s last bunch of megastars, Oasis, were panned for sticking to the blueprint, would it not be discourteous to criticise Arctic Monkeys for pushing the envelope? A totally new listener would never believe this is the same lad that wrote Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not thirteen years ago, or for that matter, the same four lads that made AM five years ago. This is very much Turner’s attempt to sit at the table of classic, contemporary songwriters. And while this may also not be what the majority of fans were hoping for, it could be the gateway drug that opens horizons to the likes of clear influences Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen.
On first listen, the obvious response to the lack of lead single would be that the album is clearly a concept piece that has been constructed to digest as one. But American Sports, which incidentally is also the first time a guitar part cuts through, would sound great drifting through the airwaves of 6 Music. ‘I never thought, not in a million years, that I’d meet so many lovers’, Turner reflectively croons through its chorus, backed by Nick O’Malley’s pulsating bass stabs and Tom Rowley’s evocatively tasteful guitar solo.
Matt Helders’ drums have always been a trademark force of nature in the Arctic Monkeys’ sound, but less is more on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Maturity is a word that keeps springing to mind as the record progresses, and it feels like very much like a coming age moment for the Sheffield four-piece. However, that’s not to say that Turner has lost his sense of humour. The title track has more swagger than Tyson Fury, and is as tongue in cheek as his Instagram stories too – ‘Pull me in close on a crisp eve, baby – kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob’.
Golden Trunks is electro-heavy and has shades of John Grant’s last album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, the showbiz lifestyle critique of Four Out Of Five is groove-filled and offers one of the record’s most immediate sing-a-long moments without descending into an unnecessary wig out, while The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip, Science Fiction and She Looks Like Fun jerk by without really making much of an impression on early listens. This run of songs feels very much one-paced and his spoken word delivery begins to feel a little overkill and borders on monotony, leaving the record yearning for a change of pace.
Thankfully, this comes in the shape of Batphone, which feels more carefully composed, with its satirical take on contemporary culture – ‘Life became a spectator sport. I launched my fragrance called integrity… Have I told you all about the time that I got sucked in by a handheld device?’ Again, less is more, and the flutters of fuzz guitar add a cinematic quality that complement Turner’s fastidious pianos as the song drifts to its film noir refrained finale. The Ultracheese waltzes the album to its conclusion, as Turner’s delivery feels more spacious after the lexical barrage that preceded it. ‘I might look as if I’m deep in thought,’ Turner reflects, ‘but the truth is I’m probably not if I ever was… I’ve done some things that I shouldn’t have done, but I haven’t stopped loving you once.’
So, on the whole, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino poses a number of questions. Is this a brave shift away from a very successful ‘rock heavy’ formula, or is this part of the ongoing journey for one of Britain’s best loved songwriters? Either way, it’s an ambitious move and one that promises to sound great in the live arena. How its contents will fit alongside the likes of Mardy Bum and R U Mine? however, is a different question altogether.