Arctic Monkeys Find New Life by Rewriting Their Formula

Photo: Timothy Norris/Getty Images

Adults in their mid-30s right now have the curious distinction — perhaps it is a curse — of having lived half their lives in the analog world and half in the digital one. We grew up having to call or visit friends to hear their voices and turn up in person at stores to buy things, but we enjoy cool perks of a computerized world like Amazon Prime same-day delivery, streaming music, and Twitter. We’re savvy enough to follow the world where it’s headed but perhaps too rooted in the old ways to feel entirely comfortable about it. We mainlined The Twilight Zone during holidays as youth, and we’re half-certain Rod Serling is going to pop out any minute now with a beady-eyed half-smirk and a devastating line about how it’s just fitting that mankind should gain access to the cumulative knowledge of the ancients and find a way to use it to get, and stay, dumber. (Serling did warn about power-mad men harnessing racist insecurities to forge a new American nativism, but he couldn’t have guessed the bit about foreign bots gunning to sway elections.)

Alex Turner, the lead singer of the British rock quartet Arctic Monkeys, was once a pointed writer of songs about the exhausting bustle of youthful nightlife, the kind of guy who always seemed trapped in the middle of a beer-drenched dance floor but also a little tired of the scene. The band seemed leaner and smarter than the wave of adult-contemporary piano-pop piping out of the U.K. at the time, peppier than the Keanes and Snow Patrols and leagues less pretentious than reigning big dogs like Muse. For all their promise, the band didn’t evolve from the ideas presented on 2005’s Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and across subsequent releases like Favourite Worst Nightmare and Humbug, so much as slow some tempos and attempt more ballads. It’s not that Turner hit a wall; the solo EP of songs he wrote for Richard Ayoade’s 2011 teen drama Submarine and the early songs he crafted as part of the supergroup the Last Shadow Puppets offered solid proof that Turner could still be impactful without relying on loud guitars.

It’s cosmic irony that the way forward for Arctic Monkeys has been to ditch the thing that made it an international success, to stop building songs from the feisty guitar riff on up and instead start constructing late-night vampire soul music using a piano Turner received as a gift for his 30th birthday. But what Turner has done in the process of writing the band’s new Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is far weirder than a simple shift in studio gear. You notice it seconds into the album opener “Star Treatment,” as the band lays out a warm, spacious groove, and Turner croaks out, “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes / Now look at the mess you made me make.” It’s sharp and self-deprecating, a self-aware “How the hell did I get here?” served in a weathered, treated rasp that owes more to MacPhisto-era Bono or Iggy Pop circa The Idiot than “Brainstorm” or “Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.”

Like U2’s Zooropa tour and Iggy’s “Nightclubbing,” Tranquility is rock music that doubles as performance art. Turner is playing the part of a saucy, jaded torch singer, and dressing like one too, if the wood-brown pantsuit and tinted sunglasses he just wore to The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon are any indication. The songs take place in a dystopian future where earthbound capitalism has destroyed the planet and metastasized into interplanetary colonization. “One Point Perspective” recalls the aftermath of a global apocalypse: “The chimes of freedom fell to bits / The shining city on the fritz / They come out of the cracks, thirsty for blood.” “Four Out of Five” winces about gentrification from the perch of a critically acclaimed rooftop taqueria on the moon and invokes culture critic Neil Postman’s sage warning that television will destroy American political discourse. “Star Treatment” shouts out Blade Runner, and “Science Fiction” winks at Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, the 1973 virtual-reality thriller sci-fi fans in the know consider the godfather of The Matrix.

Tranquility works hard to converse with its reference material, and in the more lucid moments of a lyric sheet that comes on at first as abstract poetry, you begin to see the implication that the ruined universe of the album is an indictment of the real world of 2018. Tranquility’s disorder is what happens after “they take the truth and make it fluid,” to quote “American Sports.” The cartoonish politician ribbed throughout “Golden Trunks” (“The leader of the free world / Reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks”) could easily be Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip” recasts the old Kodak slogan “You press the button, and we’ll do the rest” in a lilting melody that comes across as both a jingle and a smart-alecky riff on the inertia fostered by convenience. Late in the album, “Science Fiction” tips Turner’s hand: “I want to make a simple point about peace and love / But in a sexy way, where it’s not obvious / Highlight dangers and send out hidden messages / The way some science fiction does.” The closing lines of “Science Fiction” catch the singer fretting, like Postman, that the framing of these ideas might muddy them: “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 / The way some science fiction does.”

This is a reasonable worry. Longtime fans weaned on five albums of spiky punk and power-pop nuggets are probably having a conniption wading into the soulful atmospherics and affected vocals of “Star Treatment” today and wondering if they haven’t just cued up the wrong album by accident. Tranquility’s taste for loose funk and open space doesn’t resemble much of anything in the Arctic Monkeys universe, barring the monster-truck song’s whiff of the same ’60s pop values Turner pursued with Miles Kane and James Ford on the first Last Shadow Puppets album. (The work of art Tranquility resembles most closely is probably Pussy Cats, the album created during John Lennon and Harry Nilsson’s famous “lost weekend” that marries uncharacteristically hoarse vocal performances from Nilsson to the drowsy, gossamer psych of Plastic Ono Band cuts like “Mother.”) On Tranquility, bass, piano, and airtight vocal harmonies lead melodically, while guitars mostly serve as decoration, except in “She Looks Like Fun,” the lone semi-traditional rock song, which is played more like a crude Frank Zappa parody of a rock song than an earnest go at the kind of music fans of the last Arctic Monkeys album surely came here expecting.

It’s hard not to see all of this as some kind of devilish provocation. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino offers neither the trademark sound of Arctic Monkeys nor the heartfelt, sentimental songwriting that has endeared the band to millions. It does offer crabby politics, delightfully ghoulish vocals, intergalactic intrigue, and a long list of follow-up reading and viewing materials. Frankly, anyone hanging around for another “Do I Wanna Know?” deserves this album. The band painted itself into a corner years ago. Tranquility bulldozed the building and hopped a jet to the moon. You can go back to “Mardy Bum” and relive decade-old pub nights that ended in puke and “Mr. Brightside” sing-alongs, or you can jump in the spaceship and fantasize about the Earth bursting into a hail of space junk. I say let it rain.

Arctic Monkeys Find New Life by Rewriting Their Formula