It’s now been about two weeks since the Artic Monkeys released what might be their most divisive album to date. Although the critics were mostly nice if not raving in its favour, it had the average listener confused. Those familiar with frontman Alex Turner’s side projects will have questioned why he had to bring this sound into the Monkeys as well. Those unfamiliar with them will have been wondering where this strange diversion came from at all. Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is not a bad album. “Four Out Of Five” is a well-chosen single, and Turner’s poetics are in prime shape on “Star Treatment,” “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip” and “The Ultracheese”. The general sound is pleasant and apart from “She Looks Like Fun” not necessarily skip-inducing. The whole of it is unfortunately simply so forgettable that it is hard to even have much of an opinion on it. Most of the tracks on this record sound like Last Shadow Puppets B-sides, or the self-indulgent ramblings of a man disenchanted by fame. So why, when everyone knows this is not the greatest achievement, do the band remain unscathed?
When considering the band’s entire discography, the new release will by many be ranked at the very bottom. It is not nearly as exciting as Suck It And See and Humbug combined, as at least these albums caused a commotion. Each had its own chart-worthy tracks like “Cornerstone” and “Brick By Brick”. Both albums have a clear concept that made sense for the Arctic Monkeys’ career development. By comparison, Tranquility Base at times feels like the band is putting their hands up saying “Hey, we never asked for any of this”. Yet it appears that we can no longer be critical of the lads. Do we acknowledge that it is hard to come back after a monster hit like AM and are we playing nice? Do the fans appreciate the effort to draw back out of the mainstream and are they willing to expose themselves to this mediocre project as a result? Are their ears so desensitised to good rock music after a very brief interest in trap that they’ll take anything that’s not about selling dope?
In all seriousness, it’s probably a combination of all of the above, but there is more at play. Let’s start with the fact that Alex Turner is too fascinating to hate. His image changes with each album, each side project. He is a mysterious chameleon that cannot seem to be able to write a bad lyrics if his life depended on it. After Humbug he was a shy shoegazer on stage. With the latest Last Shadow Puppets album he turned into a gregarious, hip-swaying comedian. With a man so intriguing, people will show up at the gigs just to see what he is up to next. On the flip side, it can be argued that his total disregard for the desires of the audience is an indication that in fact we are dealing with a self-important proto-rockstar. Yet there is no way to find out which it is, as Turner has made it his life’s work to hide his real self.
In addition to the above there is the point that rock is having a bit of a crisis at the moment. With the charts full of hip hop, electro/dance pop, and folky singer-songwriters a la Ed Sheeran and George Ezra, there is not a predominant rock sound that is taking the world by storm at the moment. The rock that’s currently out there is the punky girl-power of the likes of Wolf Alice, Angel Olsen, and Dream Wife, or the dragging garage sound of Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile. But these are not mainstream hits. I could go on and list all the rock artists that are having a good time currently, but it is a sound that has all but disappeared from the charts and instead has made a home at festival stages and alternative pubs. Yet there is nowhere for the Arctic Monkeys to go but into the charts. AM was such an international success that whatever they put out will be bought if simply out of curiosity. Perhaps it was this that made the band not put out a single before the album release, as people had already bought the record before finding out how incredibly different it was. Way to troll the world, right? And yet we can hardly blame them for trying something new. There is no wave to ride, and although people might think they had rather had more of the AM sound, that would have been disappointing too, as it most likely wouldn’t have been as good.
So it appears there is no right and wrong here. We might be underwhelmed, but at least the band didn’t attempt to incorporate new trends, a move that has meant the downfall for many in the past (I don’t want to say Coldplay but… Coldplay). At least they stayed brutally true to themselves, even if that means not pleasing everyone else. The way the machine works, the Arctic Monkeys will play stadiums for a long long time to come, whatever the hell they decide to do next. It would be amazing if they came out with something groundbreaking, but they have enough to satisfy audiences for decades to come. People will show up hoping to hear the oldies they grew up with, patiently sitting through the rest, and jumping out of their seat as soon as nostalgia strikes. And that’s not bad at all. It means these guys changed people’s lives and will forever have a special place in their hearts. It is perhaps this most of all that means that we will forgive them a lesser album every single time. I will forever remember how Whatever People Say I Am got me out of my emo phase and introduced me to indie. I will always know what lines from Favourite Worst Nightmares I used as my MSN Messenger status. There won’t be a day in my life that I won’t believe that Humbug is a great record and who could resist that pie design on the cd? I have fond memories of the drunken conversations about Suck It and See with a new friend on a university trip to Edinburgh. “Do I Wanna Know” will always be one of my favourite tracks of all time and AM one if my favourite albums. It might not be cool in five or ten years to be an Arctic Monkeys fan, it already kind of isn’t anymore, but that stops being important. I guess it means that their music has become more than just sounds. It has also become a part of many people’s dearest memories.