It’s easy to forget that on the chorus of Arctic Monkeys’ first ever single, 2006’s “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” there’s a lyric in the chorus that goes “I said I bet that you look good on the dancefloor / Dancing to electro pop like a robot from 1984.”
For many British rock fans, the Monkeys’ whirlwind tune about fancying someone in a nightclub is shelved in our brains somewhere between “Mr Brightside” and “Cigarettes and Alcohol.” When it’s played live or someone queues it up at a party, you don’t really think about the words you’re yelling along to because you’re too caught up in how it makes you feel. But consider the objective strangeness of that lyric, squeezed in alongside the song’s other more slice-of-life observations. Of all the words Alex Turner could have selected to describe someone he quite liked the look of, he chose “like a robot from 1984.”
Turner was 20 when “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” was released. Now he is 32 and his band are on their sixth LP. Their last record, AM, was a rock behemoth. It felt like the piece of work they had spent years working towards, its release a declaration that Arctic Monkeys had become a truly world-dominating group. Making its successor, though, it’s as though the band had a choice: they could rehash the last record; or they could wipe the slate clean and chuck it through the window. It was an opportunity for the band to expand their universe, to dig into their instincts, and perhaps even to re-embrace that sexy robot from 1984. It was an opportunity they took.
Sonically, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino feels like a necessary counterpoint to AM’s arena-ready, hyper-structured anthems. Its songs meander around; the closest they get to choruses are single repeated lines (“I never thought, not in a million year, that I’d meet so many Lolas,” Turner croons a few times on “American Sports.”) The sound is mellow, the piano playing new and prominent, while the vocals – stretched to pleasing new limits across the whole record, as Turner even flexes a Prince-gesturing falsetto on the title track—assemble the album’s landscape as we move through it. And that landscape is, well, space. Because, to be honest, what has happened is this: the biggest band in Britain, and maybe even the world, have made an album about life outside earth. And it’s actually pretty great.
When making Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, Turner says he started calling his home studio “the lunar surface.” This speaks to his total commitment to the theme—its space, by very obvious way of his home since 2012, Los Angeles, and the titular hotel is rendered kind of like a Chateau Marmont on the moon, soundtracked by its very own brand of lounge-jazz and presided over by an intergalactic, stream-of-consciousness spewing Beatnik. But while it’s certainly a thematic departure, the album is packed to the rafters with Turner’s one-liners (“Technological advances really bloody get me in the mood,” he sleazily intones on the title track), and the whimsy only makes his sustained ability to strike an emotional blow to your gut even more pronounced: it’s hard not to prickle at a line as poetic as “all of my most muscular regrets explode behind my eyes like American sports.”
Personal touches like that one (see them also on the track “Science Fiction,” an oddly romantic moment where Turner lets his narrator mask slip, and considers his own processes and habits as a songwriter) might inform an inclination to ask why Turner might have chosen to make a concept record about drifting around space, of all things. In a recent interview with the LA Times, he said that now his bandmates were all married with children, he had “never felt more marooned,” and perhaps there’s something in that: perhaps the isolation of space felt a fitting metaphor for the isolation of big, lonely Los Angeles. Certainly, there’s a muted quality about this album that suggests as much.
But as seductive as this narrative is, I’d argue that it’s equally as convincing to simply concede that Alex Turner—a perpetual, phenomenal weirdo, in possession of British lyricism’s most active imagination—just dreamed up a jazz album about the moon one day, sat at the piano having a fag. Following AM, an album so popular it has all but guaranteed them continued success, there couldn’t really be a better time for the band to take a risk and totally indulge the wit and creativity that has constantly placed them ahead of their peers.
While in places Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino might come off silly (though I’d add a counterpoint that Arctic Monkeys have been somewhat silly for the entirety of their career), it’s an album that works for the band as they are now. In making it, they’ve showed a brand new face, and while it’ll certainly never be the most crowd-pleasing in their catalogue (currently they’re only playing four of its tracks live), it’s more consistent with the rest of their material, and certainly with what we know of Turner’s personality, than it might initially appear. It’s strange as fuck, but really, that makes perfect, interstellar sense.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.