By: Ethan Gordon
Alex Turner always seemed like he hated what the Arctic Monkeys had become. After the success of AM, the Arctic Monkeys became the face of modern rock. With huge solos and crunching riffs on songs like “Do I Wanna Know?”, a generation of teenage boys who grew up salivating over Led Zeppelin and Foo Fighters had a new hero. If any of the new listeners took a second to check into Turner’s lyricism on his debut album, they’d learn that Turner was the snide asshole who would’ve made fun of them in high school. Go figure. AM was a sensation, and Alex Turner had to follow that. It had been five years, and fans were getting antsy.
When returning to the studio, Alex Turner suffered from a case of writer’s block. He eventually started writing with his childhood piano, decided to name his studio the Lunar Surface, and after a viewing of Fellini’s classic film 8½, become obsessed with it. I think 8½ and Tranquillity Base Hotel + Casino can be easily compared as pieces of work – both are beautiful, technically stunning messes — capturing the state of mind of the artists — and are equally strange, alienating, and hard works to grasp. 8½ eventually became Fellini’s manifesto, a roman á clef that captured his state of mind at that part. In that same sense, Tranquillity Base captures the post-AM, hazy, Kubrick-inspired mind state that Alex Turner manifested.
Throughout the summer, I maintained a defense of this record as a lush, beautiful game of dress-up from a man who was miserable because he hated his fan base. He then decided to tell his new fan base to fuck off, and responded by making a lounge pop record. Tranquillity Base is framed as a concept record, where the Arctic Monkeys are the lounge band, in a hotel bar on the Moon. In a sense, it’s a half-baked concept used to spout big words and incessant amounts of big concepts that sound cool. But here’s the thing, the absurdity that pops up when the band perfectly combined all of these ideas became so captivating that it slowly became one of my favorite albums of the year. As an album that tells it’s audience to fuck off almost immediately, as a quick screenshot of the headspace Alex Turner created, or even just as a collection of overarching societal ideas from a charismatic narrator, the album succeeds.
As an album that aims to get rid off of about 60% of the audience, “Star Treatment” immediately blames them as well. With a strange, space-pop, piano-based tune, Turner immediately pins his misery on his audience. He tells us he just wanted to be one of The Strokes, but look at the mess we’ve led him to make. Just to get away from that, he’s created this mess, an album that’s long and isolating.
I remember the day the album came out, and a group chat of close friends of mine erupted in anger and disappointed me that there weren’t any explosively and fast paced songs on the new record. Months later, thinking about that day just made me realize that Alex Turner succeeded in what he meant to do with this record.
The record is mostly from the perspective of the singer of the lounge band, whose lyrics are continuous, often brilliant ramblings from a barely coherent narrator. Still, it’s like listening to a brilliant drunk. It’s not coherent but every idea thrown out is fascinating, and it generally makes sense when you finally add up everything they’re saying, but line-to-line, song-to-song, it might not make a lot of sense. The overall themes of technology, futurism, religion and consumerism pop up at a moment’s notice, which is part of the perfection. From lines about the martini police that vaguely invoke Leonard Cohen, to moments about the leader of the free world seeming like a wrestler wearing golden underpants, these ideas invoke an intoxicated singer on stage, which Turner seems to enact when playing these songs live. Still, you don’t find the best moment of the album until it closes with the cheesy yet wonderful track, “The Ultracheese”.
“The Ultracheese” works as the hangover to a lounge performance that got a little too cranked up. The song, which meditating on old friends and the bar they used to hang at is a quiet closer. With a beautiful baritone guitar solo, the song ends the album with this beautiful calm. The progression is a simple doo wop progression, played slowly with class to give it a more tangible, less alien, less “lunar surface on a Saturday night” feel. The record closes with an intense moment of introspection. It’s a moment that’s seemingly down to earth on an album that takes place on the moon.