In 2005, Alex Turner told us, “We’re Arctic Monkeys. … Don’t believe the hype”. How times have changed.
We all know the in-between. The fastest selling debut album in UK chart history, seven Brit awards, two headline sets at Glastonbury, six (out of six) number one albums… Now it seems to be all about the hype, with a new album which is impossible to not think of as at least slightly pretentious.
It’s unsurprising that their latest effort, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, has split opinion so comprehensively; a complete change of sound and mood was born from a fresh songwriting approach, which Alex Turner explains at the start of their recent TV special Live at the BBC:
“Every time I started with a guitar I was suspicious of where it was gonna go. I think I had a pretty good idea of what the outcome might be, which was completely contrary to how I felt when I sat at this piano and suddenly, you know, my imagination was ignited once more”.
Despite there still being a guitar-wielding monkey, this is probably about as experimental as noughties indie rockers are gonna get. Call it Kid AM.
It’s not the sound that bothers me though. What bothers me is that it feels more like an Alex Turner solo record. This isn’t the Alex Turner who wrote the Submarine soundtrack in 2011, this is the man who has been living in LA and now sings like he does. He has been plonking out 4/4 triads on his piano and taken them to a likely fairly bemused band. Although they contribute competently, it’s not music that plays to the strengths of, or makes the most of drummer Matt Helders, guitarist Jamie Cook or bassist Nick O’Malley. The new sound is hardly even to Turner’s strengths, with two session musicians regularly playing his new favourite “imagination-igniting” instrument around him throughout the new tracks featured on Live at the BBC, while Turner stands about posing.
We saw the warning signs two years ago when Turner was swaying his hips on the Pyramid Stage alongside Miles Kane in the Last Shadow Puppets. But that was a different act. Nobody saw Tranquility Base as the obvious next album. Seeing Alex Turner act the organ grinder to his Arctic Monkeys leaves something of a bitter taste.
Live at the BBC only serves to add to this perception. Most people dress for an occasion but, shot by vintage cameras and featuring television sets from bygone eras, it seems Maida Vale has been dressed to match Turner’s latest look. In fact, Alex Turner is the filmmaker’s focus constantly. Choreographed looks to camera are painfully coupled by a slightly disingenuous voice that evokes ironic memories of his noughties lyric, “You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham, so get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook”.
For what it’s worth, the new songs come across well live. Their new music has such a focus on Turner’s ever-developing vocal that lyrical content feels accentuated, giving something of a perceptual shift for the continuing AM listener. There’s nothing wrong with the album either, but aside from Turner’s show-stealing bravado, there’s another reason he’s the constant focus of the camera; you only have to look at the other band members to see how bored they are. Particularly Helders feels woefully underused on these tracks, and the evidence of that is provided by some of their back catalogue throughout the show…
If you want a 90-second taste of the best and worst Live at the BBC has to offer – skip straight to 8.38 here for some key, archetypal moments…
8.38: Hand through his hair, brow furrowed, Alex Turner delivers his latest proclamations remembered from his GCSE poetry book, before he “[loses his] train o’ thought” and gives us ten seconds of utterly inspired acting to push his point home…
9.08: Turner goes for a strut while three keys parts are played by two touring musicians around him.
9.21: One of these two musicians, a sweaty (no surprise, he’s working harder than the others) Tyler Parkford prompts Alex Turner to bizarrely declare, “That sound means it’s the end of the round. Time for the bonus question.”
9:28: When the bonus question turns out to be ‘R U Mine?’, you remember everything that’s good about Arctic Monkeys when they work as a unit. Turner loses the garish glasses along with (most of) the pretense. Helders starts to pull drummer faces and the energy goes up about twelve thousand percent. With tight vocal harmonies and instrumental parts, Alex Turner feels like a Monkey again.
Unfortunately, it’s not a trend that continues, with I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor proving a surprisingly uncomfortable watch. The band who wrote that song feel far removed from today’s Arctic Monkeys. The original music video saw the fresh-faced Sheffield teens bash the song out live at around 110bpm. On Live at the BBC (17:27), they constantly fluctuate from around 91 to 99bpm, sluggishly dragging through verses delivered with the now customary Alex Turner sneer. It’s a song they’ll never escape, for better or worse. To put a fresh spin on it would be both admirable and understandable, but this is a weak impression of the same old schtick.
The closing credits, filmed scrolling on an old TV screen next to Alex Turner providing a rare keys soundtrack, are a really nice touch. It’s an aesthetically pleasing spectacle, but it’s a concept which seems so far removed from the DIY origins of the band.
It feels like they’re separate personalities struggling to locate their collective identity. Right now, Matt Helders and his plain shirt don’t quite match up to the ‘Made in Chelsea’ long hair and pinstripe suit efforts of Jamie Cook. Nobody seems to crack a smile throughout Live at the BBC, but then again, this isn’t fun anymore. It’s serious business, this LA rock ‘n’ roll bullshit.
Development is vital for the life of any artist. Plus, when Arctic Monkeys have inspired so many soundalikes, this new sound is no bad thing for their commercial longevity. As long as individual ego doesn’t stand in the way of collective development, I expect their next album to continue this aural progression but be stronger for each member also stamping their musical authority.
Your ears may prefer the new Arctic Monkeys – the question is, can you stomach the Alex Turner show? Don’t believe the hype, judge it for yourself.