The Moon is a long way from the boardwalk, and 5 years is the longest break between albums to date for Arctic Monkeys, returning here with Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, their starkest and most daring musical shift to date. Going into it, the only thing I had read or heard about their new record was a social media opinion along the lines of ‘Arctic Monkeys have just gone and released 40 minutes of elevator music’, and less than halfway through the opener ‘Star Treatment’ I start smiling about this. Partially, I’m smiling in the knowledge that this isn’t going to be a one-off moment of obscurity, but indicative of the album as a whole, but primarily I’m just relieved that they haven’t put an end to their unpredictable, transformative nature, but have again risked alienating their fanbase in pursuit of their own artistic interests.
The album is coated in a Jazz influence that follows its lounge-singing unreliable narrator through the hotel’s honeymoon suites and side bars screening Blade Runner. But despite being driven by Alex Turner’s piano arrangements, as opposed to the hard rock riffs of recent records, Casino is still undoubtedly in the spirit of Monkeys' back catalogue, and not just because of the prominence of Turner’s increasingly surreal wordplay. The vintage keyboards and use of synthesisers are reminiscent of what was formerly their strangest album, Humbug, a record which ‘Batphone’ and ‘She Looks Like Fun’ would have sat comfortably amongst. Rock iconography can still be found throughout: the Steinway on ‘Golden Trunks’ produces the feel of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ whilst in some moments of album, closer ‘The Ultracheese’, it is reminiscent of John Lennon’s ‘God’.
But while there are connections to previous work, the true distinction is in the absence of the hooks, tunes, and pop sensibilities which previous effort AM had an absolute abundance of. It’s similar to how off the back of three consecutive UK number 1 albums and a successful detour into soul, David Bowie decided to hit audiences with the 10-minute krautrock, funk-fused opener of ‘Station to Station’. And as with that album’s much loved single ‘Golden Years’, Casino showcases Turner’s ability to still produce upbeat, anthemic choruses when he fancies it, principally on ‘Four Out Of Five’, no doubt the only track here guaranteed to feature on a hypothetical ‘best of’ compilation.
Overall, however, the band are less concerned with creating a collection of catchy rock numbers, but instead on delivering a seamless, thematically consistent album best suited to being heard in a single sitting. Turner champions science fiction’s ability to effectively reflect contemporary society, placing us aboard his space-base casino whilst commenting on our reliance of technology. Whilst it’s true that Charlie Brooker already consistently explores these themes using sci-fi frameworks on Netflix’s dark anthology series Black Mirror, when these lyrical themes couple up with the bands amalgamation of jazz, 60’s rock ’n’ roll and 70’s glam amongst others, the result is an album whose setting feels lived in, a hotel and casino whose atmosphere is intriguing, if not necessarily inviting.
Odd as it seems to compare an album to a first person shooter from 2007, Turner’s moon base reminds me of the underwater utopia, Rapture, from the widely praised video game Bioshock. In Bioshock, the Orwelian-Huxley inspired Rapture is a city where a suave, debonair elite embrace new found technology only for it to corrupt and destroy their society. It too was located in the 60s and was birthed from science fiction novels. It also had a casino level. The most frequently acclaimed element of Bioshock was Rapture itself, referred by critics as equally wonderful and disturbing. For me the greatest strength of Arctic Monkeys sixth studio album is the world they have built on it. It’s one I know I’m going to revisit.