Rock ‘n’ roll might be an art form in decline, but the Arctic Monkeys are doing their best to keep the flame alive. Friday is the release day for the British quartet’s sixth album, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino,” their first outing since 2013’s “AM.”
Despite the rock genre’s diminished status among consumers of new mainstream music, the release of “TBH&C” is kind of a big deal in certain quarters that are actually pretty well-populated, at least by the standards of this fractured, monoculture-less era. The Monkeys have a rabid following in the UK and across Latin America, and they’re playing a host of sold-out shows on their current tour, including many dates here in the states. Critics love the band as well. For a rock group that’s not merely another legacy act (like U2 or even the Killers), this is noteworthy and something to be celebrated.
Here’s my case for why you should care, and why the Arctic Monkeys — lead man Alex Turner, guitarist Jamie Cook, bassist Nick O’Malley, and drummer Matt Helders — are simply an awesome band.
1. The Evolution of their Sound
After their first record, 2006’s “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” became the fastest selling debut in British music history, the Monkeys easily could’ve rested on their laurels and stuck close to the same twitchy, tuneful, Strokes-inspired garage-rock sound that had catapulted them to stardom. Not so. They swung in the opposite direction.
Their follow up, “Favourite Worst Nightmare,” (2007) was both harder-hitting and more vulnerable than its predecessor. For “Humbug,” they decamped to Joshua Tree and, under the tutelage of Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, explored murky stoner rock. Night shifted to day on 2011’s “Suck It and See,” which brims with bright, Johnny Marr-like guitars and lush melodies.
On their American breakthrough, “AM,” they opted for moody, muscular hooks and sexy grooves, with nods to T. Rex, the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, and even the Bee Gees. And the early word on “TBH&C” is that it’s a lounge-y, Bowie-esque trip to the moon (as indicated by the fantastic title). In other words, the Monkeys are always on the move creatively — one mark of a serious, accomplished band — and they’re clearly steeped in the rock ‘n’ roll canon and view themselves as part of that tradition.
2. Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle
If rock ‘n’ roll as a genre has been in decline for some time, the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is basically dead. In this instance, the past is truly a foreign country. All the excess, debauchery, and nonsense that we associate with legendary figures like Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, and Keith Richards is almost unthinkable from the standpoint of our current moment. These days, musicians are super normal and relatable, especially in the indie rock world. They exercise. They show up to interviews wearing sensible plaid button-downs, Levi’s 511s, and New Balances. They don’t smoke. They probably know how to code. There’s a certain charm to reliability, but it can quickly become tedious and boring. “Dad rock” is the oft-used phrase of derision for this trend.
The Arctic Monkeys offer something of a contrast. No, they don’t seem to be high-flying hedonists, but they avail themselves of just enough of the old-fashioned privileges and proclivities of rock stars to stand out. Read some of the “TBH&C” coverage and the relevant details are obvious: model wives and girlfriends, houses in the Hills, adventurous and expensive tastes in fashion, recording sessions in old French mansions, etc. Woven together, there’s almost a ritual quality to it all: a rock band very deliberately being a rock band. Amen to that. From the fan perspective, it offers a pleasing sense of otherness, a sense of “not like us,” that points beyond the normal and the day-to-day. In a word, it’s escapist, and sometimes that really hits the spot.
3. The Rock Star
Of course, what would a rock ‘n’ roll band be without a magnetic and interesting front man? Alex Turner fills that role brilliantly. He’s a handsome, stylish dude who writes self-assured songs and knows how to occupy a stage with star power and drunken buffoonery. In the way he carries out his professional duties, he diverges from many of his male peers in this regard: he doesn’t seem to be scared of his own manhood. Or, at the very least, he’s not ashamed of it.
He knows he possesses a high degree of sex appeal, and he mines that for both songwriting and performance purposes. Just listen to “Dance Little Liar” or “Do I Wanna Know?” or “Miracle Aligner.” These are sexy songs, the scarcity of which in the current rock world would have you believe the whole concept had been outlawed. Or watch this compilation of him dancing, posing, and swaggering onstage in wonderfully eclectic, eye-catching attire. He also crawls on the job. There’s a guy who understands that showy, ostentatious, ridiculous spectacle is a venerable part of the rock ‘n’ roll tradition.
And if you need a laugh, he can supply those too. Here’s a delightful video demonstrating Turner’s habit of repeatedly calling interviewers by their name (“Hello, Stryker”). Is it a bit patronizing? Yes. So it goes with rock stars. But it’s also of a very innocent variety. You’ll notice too from that video that Turner’s accent has evolved over the years. Perhaps inspired by the Great Shapeshifter himself, Turner has played something of an enigmatic chameleon with his public persona. His sound has changed again and again, his look has changed again and again, and even his voice has changed.
4. Exceptional Talent
Turner has the goods to back up his antics, though. Far from being an empty Christian Dior, he’s obscenely gifted and versatile.
Voice? He can do slithery and seductive, biting and cynical, affectionate and wounded. Especially in intimate performances, there’s a purity to his voice that’s absolutely disarming. On that count, here’s his exquisite cover of Patsy Cline’s “Strange.” Guitar playing? He may not be a master craftsman, but he has a wonderful ear for riffs (see many of the songs already linked to).
Lyrics? There’s a love of words and a gift for vivid imagery that runs through his body of work, from his early rapid-fire observational musings to his more surreal material to his stacked metaphors for love, lust, and heartbreak. Several personal favorites: “That’s not a skirt, girl/That’s a sawn-off shotgun/And I can only hope you’ve got it aimed at me” (from “Suck It and See”); “I feel like the Sundance Kid behind a synthesizer” (from “Black Treacle”); and every word of “Love Is a Laserquest.”
His verbal flair is evident even just in song titles: “Fluorescent Adolescent,” “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” and “Piledriver Waltz,” to highlight a few. Not to be outdone, there’s a track on the upcoming album entitled, “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip.” (Unfortunately, Turner has no presence on social media to gift us with more of his thoughts and ruminations. He said if he did he’d probably just post Bukowski quotes. Yes to rock stars being pretentious!)
5. Solo Projects Fuel Creativity
Finally, Turner hasn’t confined himself solely to the Monkeys. His psychedelic-meets-symphonic rock side-project, the Last Shadow Puppets, has been an outlet for some of his most memorable work, and his soundtrack for the 2011 film “Submarine” showed a deft touch for light and dreamy indie pop. He can do it all, it seems (the bastard), even album artwork.
If that’s not enough for you, here’s one last detail. Ahead of “TBH&C,” the Monkeys decided against putting out any singles, bucking the trend these days of dumping basically half of an album before its release. They respect the album format! The album lives! It doesn’t get much more old-school than that.