The Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner is the Damon Albarn of his Brit-pop generation – the restless artist who refuses to sit still in one sound too long. The Monkeys have come a long way since the wordy, stungun punk rock of their 2005 hit “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor.” A really long way. Their five-years-in-the-making Tranquility Base Hotel is a lounge-pop concept record set in a casino piano bar on the moon. Turner romances his Steinway, tapping influences like French crooner Serge Gainsbourg’s oily Sixties ballads; louche, late-Seventies Leonard Cohen; and the space-age bachelor pad music hipsters were down with in the Nineties. “I’m a big name in deep space/Ask your mates/But golden boy’s in bad shape,” he sings on the album-opening “Star Treatment,” playing a has-been rocker so washed up he’s consigned to playing for bored lunar drunks.
It’s an adventurous, Bowie-esque conceit, and songs like “American Sports” and the “Ultracheese” aren’t without a certain vermouth-zonked charm. But the meandering LP can’t bear the weight of the man at the piano’s indulgences; “Four Out of Five” literally riffs off music magazine star ratings, and on “Batphone” Turner’s lyrics give off an annoying Velvet Goldmine-meets-Black Mirror vibe (“Did I ever tell you all about the time I got sucked down the bottom of a hand-held device?” he sings).
No one expects Turner to be a Bill Evans-level pianist or a Harry Nilsson-level composer. These are more like soused oblong comedy jags than crafted songs, anyway – Tranquility Base is the rare album that might’ve been better live, so you could hear him fuck with people in real time, like Lou Reed’s Take No Prisoners. In any case, Turner’s inchoate chops are very limiting in terms of creating enjoyable music (he started learning piano just to make this record). So even a nice classic-feeling pop melody like the one for “Golden Trunk” devolves into a lurching drag. After a whole record in his wee small hours, you might want to hop the next space shuttle back to Earth.
Arctic Monkeys are a great band who’ve made a ton of good music – the dusky L.A. glam-grind of 2013’s A.M. was especially excellent – and in the tradition of lodestars like Cohen, Bowie or Lou Reed, who certainly weren’t above the occasional ill-considered left turn, they’ve tried a stylistic change-up that doesn’t quite work. No shame in that. Sometimes restless artistry has a price.