Throughout their career, it’s always been easy to be either for or against the Arctic Monkeys; their debut – along with that of The Libertines – cast British guitar music in a profile few others have this century, whilst counter to this both Humbug and the playful chimera Suck It And See represented for most trials of patience and panning for gold amongst a carousel of ideas.
It’s been five years since the quartet’s relatively hang up free AM, a record which, based on the evidence of Tranquillity Base Hotel And Casino, was not only a career full stop but also a thick underlining in pen.
Embryonically it was a set of ditties bashed out by Alex Turner on a Steinway Vertegrand piano in his spare room, which at first the singer toyed with fashioning as a solo album such was the departure that they signalled from the various aspects of the band’s past. Instead, these autobiographical notions became the DNA of this a sixth release that, such is its wild diversionary nature, may result in no-one ever feeling safe from the band’s next step again.
In a private moment, the Sheffielders may look back on such a radical creation and deem it to be their very own Smile.
Assembling at the La Frette studio in Paris, the band recruited long time collaborator James Ford on production duties and recruited an ensemble cast including Tame Impala’s Cam Avery and James Righton, once of micro-scene nu-ravers The Klaxons. Turner appears in character as an ageing lounge lizard throughout, opener Star Treatment’s first stanza, “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”, a brilliant, rakish setting of tone from which he rarely wanders.
Anyone hoping that this louche, fondue and polyester ambience is by accident rather than design will find themselves quickly disappointed; American Sports swoops from pub singing to psychedelia and back, part monologue, part gothic personal horror story in shades of tangential self-examination, whilst Four Stars Out Of Five sounds like a Trip Advisor review written by the cast of Blake’s 7 as they stage a disco MC’d by the Brotherhood of Man.
Described by Jamie Cook with typical Yorkshire understatement as ‘definitely not a guitar record’, Tranquillity Base… at no point relinquishes its inner weirdness, a glance inside a songwriter’s mind which, amongst the colloquialisms, is now weaving stories with the skill of a master beyond his years . His commitment to this bar-stool repartee is total, closing pair Batphone and The Ultracheese a rustic country soliloquy and shuffling hip-hop curio respectively, sounding with every listen more and more like a pair of eccentric non-identical twins.
The search for a handle on the moment will be conducted in a default mode of head shaking, but there are some precedents, echoes found encased in Serge Gainsbourg, Marc Bolan and, less obviously, neighbourhood oddball Stephen Jones, better known as Babybird.
In one sense, our point man here is in good company; none on that list are shrinking violets, but braver listeners who discard them will in return find it is possible for some objectivity to crawl up from the primeval slime of judgement. The verdict once the red mist has cleared is that in part, Turner has written some of the finest material of his career in Star Treatment, the end-of-the-pier funk of One Point Perspective the title track’s urbane sprawl, with only The Word’s First Ever Monster Truck Flip stretching the new aesthetic beyond its point of no return.
The wisdom of all of this depends on your perspective of course, as no respected name has taken a risk like this since Radiohead’s Kid A. But then wisdom shouldn’t come into it; Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino has started a conversation which may never stop, exposed people to sounds and cadences they wouldn’t otherwise have experienced, its existence a metaphor for every artist who ended up playing to five people in Leighton Buzzard or quit whilst six figures unrecouped because they wouldn’t, couldn’t compromise.
In a few weeks it will have been analysed, microscopically dissected, eviscerated for meaning when perhaps it’s best realised as simply an experience, something that doesn’t need definition.
It’s always been easy to love or hate the Arctic Monkeys, but now you can’t ignore them, the pinnacle of achievement for stars in the grand tradition which this record upholds with equal shots of panache and glee.