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11 May 2018

Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino explores a songwriter’s embarrassment

If not embarrassing, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is concerned with embarrassment.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Indie band Arctic Monkeys have made a science fiction lounge music concept album about a 1970s-style hotel in space. If these words don’t force your entire body into an existential, shivering cringe, I simply cannot relate to your state of mind. This album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, is an embarrassing idea. That’s simply a fact.

“Arctic Monkeys have returned with a bizarre amalgam of surrealist lyricism and space-age bachelor-pad music that one suspects will put an end to [their] upward trajectory,” Will Hodgkinson writes in the Times. Rolling Stone’s Jon Dolan sees the album as fundamentally unable to support its own self-indulgence (I repeat: this is a science fiction lounge music concept album about a 1970s-style hotel in space). “It’s hard to stifle a groan,” Alex Petridis writes at the Guardian, when it becomes clear that the pitfalls of a technology-obsessed society “is one of Tranquility Base’s preoccupations”. Oh, good, a science fiction lounge music concept album about a 1970s-style hotel in space with an added pinch of pious Insta-hatred.

Strange, then, that the majority of reviews have, even with such qualifiers, been mostly positive. This subdued, sometimes tuneless, meandering record is deceptively hypnotic, and somehow manages to skirt the edges of embarrassing self-importance without diving in headfirst. Perhaps this is because Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is, for better or worse, very self-aware. It knows that it probably looks bad, but ploughs ahead anyway – like deliberately overcommitting to a fancy dress party knowing that people will take the piss. It looks straight at its own, elaborately costumed, reflection – and winks.

If not embarrassing, this is an album concerned with embarrassment. Here, lead singer and lyricist Alex Turner seems to view song-writing as inherently embarrassing in any case. The album opens with the lyric: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make, hitchhiking with a monogrammed suitcase miles away from any half useful imaginary highway.” As “Star Treatment” continues, Turner laughs at himself, painting a monstrous, excruciating portrait of his former rock-star persona: a karate-chopping poser, all greasy fingers and a ridiculously long hair, rambling about Blade Runner. On “One Point Perspective”, he imagines himself as a washed-up rocker looking desperately for a new calling, being pitied by even the cheesiest performers, playing quiet rooms and losing his train of thought.

On “American Sports”, he gestures towards haunting, humiliating memories, revisiting them in slow-motion technicolour: “And all of my most muscular regrets explode behind my eyes like American sports”. “Golden Trunks” makes light of the anxious thoughts we know all too well: “when my psyche’s subcommittee sang to me in its scary voice”.

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“Science Fiction” presents a figure who is, at best, doubtful about the merits of his own speech and song-writing. “I want to make a simple point about peace and love but in a sexy way where it’s not obvious,” he sings. “I tried to write a song to make you blush. But I’ve a feeling that the whole thing may well just end up too clever for its own good”. For Turner, being a songwriter has become, quite literally, mortifying. “What a death I died writing that song,” he sings on “The Ultracheese”. “I suppose a singer must die,” he adds on “One Point Perspective”.

On “She Looks Like Fun”, Turner suggests that the internet has just increased the amount of meaningless waffle in the world: “Finally, I can share with you through cloudy skies, every whimsical thought that enters my mind,” he sings, before adding, “There ain’t no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be”. But he even ridicules his own preachy preference for IRL communication: “I’m so full of shite, I need to spend less time stood around in bars waffling on to strangers all about martial arts and how much I respect them.” (He really did – “that was definitely something I was doing a lot of and was aware I needed to stop doing,” Turner told Far Out magazine.)

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Moments of sincerity are immediately qualified with jokes, distanced with a slick layer of irony. It’s essentially the equivalent of shoving a “lol” at the end of a revealing text to hide your overwhelming vulnerability. This at times facetious approach to songwriting has proved too much for some. “These are more like soused oblong comedy jags than crafted songs anyway,” Dolan adds at Rolling Stone. “Turner is clearly a very smart guy: smart enough to treat rock-star ennui as a joke rather than a subject that’s supposed to elicit sympathy,” Petridis continues at the Guardian. “The problem is that a smart guy is sometimes all Turner seems to be. The songs can feel like less than the sum of their parts: a selection of one-liners, wry observations and knowing winks to camera that leave you struggling to work out what he’s driving at – and wondering if he knows, or cares – and to locate any real emotional connection or impact.”

But are irony and sincerity always inherently irreconcilable? The poet Hera Lindsay Bird, whose work arguably shares a hyperbolic, self-deprecating tone, opens her collection Hera Lindsay Bird with a poem on sentimentality. “You might think this book is ironic / But to me, it is deeply sentimental / like…………if you slit your wrists while winking – does that make it a joke?” she asks. “I mean at least 75% of it.”

The final song on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is its most sentimental. “The Ultracheese” is corny: dominated by plodding piano with jazz flourishes, with theatrical tempo changes and pauses, Turner crooning in his crooniest croon. It has the record’s most straightforward, romantic, melancholy lyrics: opening with the phrase “Still got pictures of friends on the wall. Suppose we aren’t really friends anymore” and ending with the lines “I’ve done some things that I shouldn’t have done. But I haven’t stopped loving you once.”

But even at his most sincere, Turner can’t help insisting that he knows how hokey this all is. “What a death I died writing that song, start to finish with you looking on. It stays between us, Steinway and his sons because it’s The ULTRACHEESE”, the lyric sheet emphasises in all caps. “I might look as if I’m deep in thought,” he sings, and the Billy Joel-esque piano pauses for a long time, the longest on the album, a deliberately exaggerated embellishment. Then, the punchline, as the music kicks back in: “But the truth is I’m probably not if I ever was.” The record’s only straightforward love song goes to great pains to assert its own self-awareness, less we discard it as a shameful Great American Songbook covers band performance.

It’s a long way from melodious admission in the title track from the band’s 2011 album Suck it and See: “I poured my aching heart into a pop song”. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is more conflicted – chasing sincerity with irony and irony with more even sarcastic self-depreciation. On his solo EP for the film Submarine, Turner sang, “I’m not the kind of fool who’s going to sit and sing to you about stars, girl”. It’s exactly what he’s become – but he’s going to call himself a fool before we can.