For a band that gets pegged as The Saviours of Rock and Roll with every new record, it’s surprising how little Arctic Monkeys have actually been able to define what ‘rock and roll’ means to them. Since their debut 12 years ago, the band has moved from wiry indie nightclub punk to the dark, sleek riffs of 2013’s AM, with detours into paranoid desert rock and rose-coloured psych pop along the way. There have always been guitars, there have often been riffs, but Arctic Monkeys have never been a band to choose a sound and stick with it for a long period; their aesthetic at any given point has always been dependent on what persona frontman Alex Turner is trying on, whether that’s AM’s boozy, despondent rock star, or the hormonal, small-town boy of their first two records, or Suck It and See’s heart-on-sleeve romantic. In hindsight, they’re less a band interested in Saving Rock and Roll than they are a band looking to use the genre’s aesthetics as signifiers for something broader, adopting a Morrissey pout to convey anxious romance or a Sabbath stomp to gesture at oily sleaze. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the band’s sixth album and first in five years, moves away from stadium riffs and pop-adjacent hooks and into a space that’s weirder, more insular, and, sometimes, verging on inhospitable.
The album largely takes its cues from 70s lounge and chamber pop, and it gives in to the aesthetic wholeheartedly; of every Arctic Monkeys record, Tranquility Base is by far the most committed to its own particular mood. The first time I listened to the album, the feeling was that of being somewhere too clean and too artificially bright, like a hospital or a pokies lounge. There’s an unsettling chill to nearly every song, that kind of astringent, unwavering coolness that comes from being just a bit too high. The Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino isn’t a palace but a dive, a debaucherous, windowless gallery of failed ambition and lost hope where Turner has set up shop.
The same creeping sense of despondency that coloured AM is on full display here from the moment the album begins: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” sings Turner on “Star Treatment”, “Now look at the mess you made me make.” This version of Turner is an ugly caricature––a “golden boy” in bad shape, an ageing star retiring away from the spotlight, soured from years of a fame that, in hindsight, he might have never wanted. The high-pitched backing vocals from albums past are still here, but detached from Turner’s wandering vocal as they are, they pull the song closer to the territory of muzak than actual music: Turner sounds so deeply alone on this album that any other traces of humanity sound eerily inhuman.
It’s almost surprising how much mileage the band gets out of this character; as it turns out, Turner’s washed up Gainsbourg figure is one of his more compelling guises. The album’s highlights find him fully investing in this character, stumbling through the chintzy daydream of “One Point Perspective” and meditating on his career before literally losing his train of thought, or whispering “I fantasize about you too” with liquored breath on “Golden Trunks”. These songs, as well as a few others on the record, more or less place themselves around a repeating motif (”Golden Trunks”’ menacing and scrunched up central riff, “One Point Perspective” with its delicately plinking piano), giving the album a strange and warped sense of time; many of these songs don’t have hooks, sure, but they stick regardless, almost elongating themselves as you listen. Simultaneously unnerving and intoxicating, Tranquility Base is as hard to leave as it is to get into.
In fact, the record commits to Turner’s sleazy old man persona to a fault. There’s a strain of technophobia running through many songs that scans as both lazy and tired, an effort to overly politicise a record that, for the most part, is deeply compelling in its own world. Hearing Turner complain about losing brain function because of technology, (on “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip”) or “being sucked into a hole through a hand held device” (on “Batphone”) is no more interesting than it was hearing Win Butler complain about it, or any one of the many, many others who have decided to complain about how Tech Is Destroying Us on record in recent memory. Turner has never been that much of a commentator, and his newfound luddism isn’t as mind-blowing as it seems.
Even so, Tranquility Base is still an oddly magnetic listen, an immersive and finely crafted record that becomes more compelling the more time you devote to it. Its aesthetic left-turn is consistently compelling and fully formed, troubling the concept of Arctic Monkeys as the stadium headliners that they became after the release of AM as well as the notion that they’re rock music’s great saviours. If Tranquility Base proves anything, it’s that Arctic Monkeys are as bored of rock as the rest of us.
Shaad D'Souza is Noisey's Australian Editor. Follow him on Twitter.