The true greats, for better or worse, eventually wander wildly from their basic template, while still remaining completely themselves. Think the Beatles’ unrepeatable musical progression, any one of Bowie’s multiple personas, or, in the modern era, Albarn’s magpieing of any genre he can get his hands on. You might not fall for all their incarnations, but you don’t doubt their vision. A man of Alex Turner’s ego would love to be mentioned in that company for possessing the same versatility. He isn’t, and he doesn’t, but boy, does he want to make a go of it.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a statement, an attempt to put clear water between this and what’s gone before. Heavily stylised, vaguely conceptual, all the lumps and bumps sonically sculpted to suit a new, overarching vibe. “Lounge band in space” was what went on the whiteboard for this one. Wherever producer James Ford and Turner could find a way to make it sound more Tomorrow’s World in 1969, they did.
And this is Turner’s album, make no mistake. He’s so front and centre, it could almost be a solo effort. Certainly, no-one would’ve batted an eye if it had been badged a Last Shadow Puppets album. The other Monkeys might like to check the contracts and consider their options.
Guitars are reduced to bit players, the Josh Homme rock-bro buddy-up a distant memory now he has new musical pals like the Klaxons’ James Righton and Cam Avery of Tame Impala. He’s got himself a new toy – a piano, a Steinway Vertegrand a friend gave him for his 30th. (Just like any other dead ordinary bloke from Sheffield, then.)
The tune-a-day tinkling has left its impression, most immediately on opener Star Treatment, a kind of 60s supermarket muzak… in space!… to make you nod and quietly smile to yourself when you realise this lad’s up to summat. You go big or go home, and this is an all eggs in one basket bet on being able to pull this schtick off. It works. It’s the album’s most instant success. But you can imagine the more retrograde element of the fan base choking on their lager from the first seconds.
The rudimentary keyboard skills continue on One Point Perspective, which nicks the repetitive piano hammer of Grizzly Bear’s Two Weeks for its main hook. A similar theft later takes place using a keyboard on The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip. In fact, we go plonky like Chopsticks all the way through the album. He might have a way with a tune but he’s no Billy Joel on the old ivories.
When American Sports and the title track offer little change of pace or direction, you begin to suspect that what this album lacks is a banger, and you’d be right. Golden Trunks comes across James Bond theme on a budget, while Four Out Of Five has a prowly 70s detective series thing going on and a T-Rexy cadence in the chorus. Yet the search for something that could make you look good on a dancefloor goes on in vain right through to the end.
What Tranquility Base… lacks in the cheap indie thrills of yore, though, it makes up for with its lyrical flourishes. One of the pleasures of the album is that Turner’s free-wheeling wordsmithery is back with a force.
A lot of it is semi-sensible Dylanesque stream of consciousness: “Jesus in the day spa filling out the information form” (title track), “You and Genie wearing Stetson hats, trying to gain access to my Lily pad” (Monster Truck).
Sometimes its retro pop-culture-referencing Half Man Half Biscuitisms: “Dressed up in silver and white with coloured Old Grey Whistle Test lights” (Four Out Of Five), “What do you mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?” (Star Treatment).
Sometimes it combines those two spirits in a style akin to labelmate Stephen Malkmus: “My virtual reality mask is stuck on ‘Parliament Brawl'” (American Sports), “Religious iconography giving you the creeps? I feel rougher than a disco lizard tongue along your cheek.” (Science Fiction).
Yes, in some ways it might be insufferable, but it’s never banal. He has almost defiantly resurrected his dialectal twists too. One Point Perspective‘s full of “an’ all” and “bear wi’ me”, on Four Out Of Five it’s all “gerrin’ gentrified”. Kes meets Major Tom. “Gerr ‘is flat cap, mother, he’s off to t’space station.”
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino will split fans. It certainly won’t sell like AM did. It might also be the point where Alex Turner’s stratospheric cockiness finally departs earth’s orbit. But every artist needs a Nashville Skyline, a Soft Parade, a moment where you question WTF they’re doing. They’ve earned this self-indulgence. Let’s just go with it.