With ‘Tranquility Base’, Arctic Monkeys Have Quite Possibly Made The Worst Album Of 2018
Alex Turner hasn't built a hotel, he's built a brick shithouse.
It’s the most famous opening line of the year — if not the most quoted, then certainly the most discussed. It was the only morsel that fans had to go off in the lead-up to Arctic Monkeys releasing their sixth album, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino.
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” Alex Turner sighs as ‘Star Treatment’ begins the record. “Now look at the mess you made me make.”
There’s a lot to that statement, but one of the key takeaways is to be extremely careful about what you wish for. Consider that, in 2006 — the same year Arctic Monkeys put out one of the defining albums of the decade in Whatever People Say I Am… — The Strokes were about to release their make-or-break third album, First Impressions of Earth.
Despite a successful single or two, First Impressions broke the band — both their albums released since then passed by without any real impact, and it’s become increasingly clear in recent years just how little they can stand one another. The Strokes are spoken of romantically now, given the impact of their arrival at the right place at the right time — and yes, on account of the excellence of their debut. As far as their later career is concerned, however, the matter is glossed over.
Alex Turner wanted to be one of The Strokes. With Tranquility Base, he’s got it — but not in the way he would have hoped. Arctic Monkeys have not only made the worst album of their career, but quite possibly the worst album of 2018.
A Bad Mix Of Ego And No Endgame
It’s going to take a solid effort for any other artist to make an album this inconsequential, milquetoast and thoroughly beige in 2018 — one that strips away every last defining trait of what made the band compelling in the first place to inexplicably make way for dreary, uncomfortable corpse-fucking lounge music.
It’s an album of ugly ego and self-centred imposition, revealing Turner’s ugly side as he throws his bandmates under the bus in order to get his own ideas ahead. Even without the context of knowing Turner refused to turn Tranquility Base into a solo album or that he played the lion’s share of parts on the record anyway, it’s exceedingly clear from the get-go whose album this is.
Sure, one could argue that Arctic Monkeys has always been about centring Turner in one way or another — such is the role of the frontman. Never before, however, have Turner’s counterparts felt so distant and sidelined.
“Arctic Monkeys have not only made the worst album of their career, but quite possibly the worst album of 2018.”
Put it this way: Matt Helders is one of the best drummers alive. It’s his blinding efforts on tracks like ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’, ‘The View from the Afternoon’ and ‘Brianstorm’ that have created some of the defining aspects of their entire discography.
On Tranquility Base, he is essentially reduced to a single kick drum hit and a single snare hit per measure — as if he’s got one hand tied behind his back, or the rest of his kit was moved out of the room to make way for Turner’s collection of vintage synthesizers and keyboards. He’s comatose on this record — not playing for feel; in fact, barely playing at all.
All of this could be forgiven — honestly, all of it — if there was some sort of endgame here. If Turner had something even remotely interesting to say on this record. If there was a payoff to this swerve into the ditch. As listeners will find out the hard way, that is absolutely not the case here.
This isn’t about personal growth or artistic development for Turner — it’s about indulging and inhabiting characters.
Oh God, The Lyrics
Throughout the album, Turner ironically croons about being “a little too wild in the 70s,” envisions “Jesus in the day spa/filling out the information form” and romanticises “America in the golden age”. That’s not even touching the moment where he sings, in all sincerity, about “the moon’s side-boob”.
If you can find any deeper meaning or worth to these glorified Tumblr poetry quotes, then more power to you — Genius regulars are certainly having fun with it. Perhaps the best plan of attack, however, is to take it all on surface value – if you dig any deeper, you might fall through to the other side.
If that wasn’t enough, Turner also takes the opportunity to try his hand at commentary on technology. What he ends up with is the kind of stuff Win Butler would have kept on the cutting room floor circa Everything Now, with all the relevance and keen observational skills of U2’s Zooropa.
“Technological advances/Really bloody get me in the mood,” he opines on the album’s title track. Sure, whatever. ‘American Sports’, meanwhile, sees Turner boast about his “virtual reality mask” and about his “weekly chat with God on video call.” Is that… good? Bad?
Later, Turner commits the crime of making a song literally titled ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip’ antithetical to its name, eliciting no excitement or awe in its execution. In fact, the song may be Turner’s whiniest: “Brain shrinking moving images/You push the button/And we’ll do the rest.” Smart phones, dumb people, amirite?
Pair this with Turner’s earlier remark of “What do you mean/You’ve never seen Blade Runner?” and his persona embodies that of the one guy you wish you hadn’t been stuck talking to at a party — the one who’s deleted Facebook to live in the moment and has told you at least a half-dozen times that he doesn’t own a TV, despite you never asking the once.
Losing The Spark
Are the Arctic Monkeys too big to fail? Quite possibly. The industry they’ve come up in is just enough removed from that of The Strokes to buoy such a flight of fancy as this album is.
From a creative standpoint, however, there’s a genuine concern that Turner and co may never quite recover from Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino. No, of course no-one stays 22 forever — no-one was expecting the band to make I’m Still Not Whatever People Say I Am, either.
With the release of Tranquility Base, we’re losing the spark — the electricity — that once ran through this band. It was clear that Turner wanted to tear down the very foundations of the Arctic Monkeys.
What he’s built in its place, however, is not a four-star hotel and casino. It’s a brick shithouse.
David James Young is a writer, a podcaster and your favourite worst nightmare. He tweets at @DJYwrites.