ALEX Turner didn’t invent the mic drop – but he pulled off one of the most audacious examples of it at the 2014 Brit Awards.
“That rock and roll, it just won’t go away,” he said after Arctic Monkeys collected the Best Album Award for the cocksure AM. “It’s always waiting there, just around the corner, ready to make its way back through the sludge and smash through the glass ceiling, looking better than ever.”
More than a coke-addled stunt this was Turner taking on the mantle of rock’s great white hope at a time when being in a rock band was probably the uncoolest thing you could do. “It almost feels like we were representatives of guitar music, or rock’n’roll,” he told NME a few years later, indicating how serious he was about single-handedly Making Rock Music Great Again.
Four years on and Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the sixth Arctic Monkeys album, has been mic dropped with a thud. It’s the most divisive, puzzling Monkeys record since they attempted to be reborn in the Californian desert on 2009’s Josh Homme-produced
What better way to extract yourself from rock’s ever diminishing limelight than write an album with no hooks?
It’s tempting to cast Turner as the star of his own noir cabaret-comedy, but his Arctic Monkeys bandmates, particularly bassist Nick O’Malley, have embarked on a journey of musical discovery too. If AM gave drummer Matt Helder some time in the sun, O’Malley’s lecherous bass is the perfect wingman to the exaggerated lounge lizard persona Turner inhabits over these 11 almost indistinguishable tracks.
There’s nary a chorus in sight – as an unusually fence sitting Noel Gallagher helpfully pointed out – but that’s hardly surprising. What better way to extract yourself from rock’s ever diminishing limelight than write an album with no hooks?
Taken then as an exit strategy Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino succeeds on every level. It takes the weight of the rock world off Turner’s shoulders, and provides a launchpad for wherever he wants to take his band next.
But what then of the genre he’s left behind?
Last Rock Star Standing
IT’S quite telling that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was released in the same week that Donald Glover unleashed one of the most important cultural moments in recent memory.
Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ confronts gun violence and racism in the US, satirising African dance moves, reclaiming slavery caricatures, and inspiring a seemingly endless number of think-pieces unpacking its influences. But more than that, it illustrates hip-hop’s capacity to be a zeitgeist-shaping, culture-shifting agent of change.
When’s the last time a rock record, single, or video did that?
The answer is somewhat revealed by Turner himself in the opening 20 seconds of Tranquility Base Hotel. “Just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” his reverb-soaked voice drawls, as O’Malley’s Carol Kaye-inspired bass tiptoes around him. Join the queue mate.
In 2002, we all wanted to be The Strokes. Or The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Or
That’s not to say The Strokes had the broad political or cultural clout of a Childish Gambino video or a Beyonce performance or a Kanye tweet, but their impact was profound and far-reaching enough to convince a moppish kid from the suburbs of Sheffield to start writing songs on the guitar he’d been gifted a year earlier and upload them to MySpace. And there’s something profound in that, too.
“The Strokes got on a bus, and they brought ‘downtown cool’ to the world,” said the late cultural critic Marc Spitz, one of the talking heads in Lizzy Goodman’s fascinating oral history of that time, Meet Me In The Bathroom. “Along with the Internet, they were changing everything, not just music. They were changing attitudes.”
That attitudinal change didn’t last long. Like grunge, the nu-rock mini-revolution devolved into a watered down second wave of which the Arctic Monkeys – and only the Arctic Monkeys – have emerged from not only alive, but with any sense of dignity or cultural value.
The poisoned chalice that Turner so willingly embraced at the Brit Awards weighed on him heavily when it came time to following up AM.
They’re arguably the last rock band capable of making a broad impact at at time when the genre is powerful, provocative and challenging on the margins (Camp Cope, St Vincent,
The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker have been on their own insular trip since the outset, which really only leaves Alex Turner as the last rock star standing at a time when there are “no guitar heroes”, as a retailer surmised when legendary guitar brand Gibson filed for bankruptcy earlier this month.
And that makes Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino an unwitting act of nobility. If it’s not Turner saving rock’s sorry arse that leaves the door open for a new saviour to rise from the streets; one that may not fit a tired and outdated mould.
YOU get the feeling the poisoned chalice that Turner so willingly embraced at the Brit Awards weighed on him heavily when it came time to following up AM, arguably the decade’s best rock album.
And when you’re a self-anointed rock messiah with writers’ block, what else to do but retreat into your Hollywood Hills basement, binge watch sci-fi, spend months building a cardboard model, and put 12 years of myth-making into a capsule and fire it off to the moon?
“Dancing in my underpants,” he sings on the detached doo-wop of
Anything but a rock record, really.