Yes, the Arctic Monkeys album that’s now two or three years old. The title may be a strange question admittedly but do bear with me. Arctic Monkeys released a live album ‘Live at the Royal Albert Hall’ towards the back end of last year, so I’d revisited the band relatively recently. As a result of that I listened to Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino again, the first time for a while.
I’m a fan of the record. It’s pretty rare for a British band or artist to reinvent themselves so successfully. It’s even rarer for them to do it at the absolute height of their fame and peak of their powers. Bowie is possibly the most obvious precedent; he made a career out of it. For my money that’s exactly what the Arctic Monkeys did. AM had been an international best seller five years earlier, bringing them new fans all over the world, especially in America. As far as sleazy LA rock n roll albums go, it was genuinely up there.
Then came Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, a mildly absurd lounge rock album set on the moon. An unusual concept at any time but especially so given the bands output up to that point. Listening again I was struck now by how natural it all sounds, in a way that it probably didn’t on first listen a few years ago. The music works, the concept is on the surface strange and fun and the character (or characters depending on your take) work too – faux drunk, mildly eccentric, lounge singer shimmer, slightly cocky. The lyrics as you’d expect from Alex Turner are at once witty but often carry double or hidden meanings. On revisiting the album it was some of these lyrics that struck me. They felt more connected than I’d remembered. There was more of a theme. More social commentary beyond jibes about American presidents and the truth being under attack.
I sensed a hauntological theme within the album. Perhaps even a conscious nod to such an idea from Turner himself. I’m using the idea of hauntology quite loosely, which isn’t uncommon today. Much like the term psychogeography, it has come to mean different things in different contexts. Here I’m not talking about it in a specific sense politically – though I’d argue there is political commentary contained within the lyrics of the album. But this isn’t Derrida’s Specters of Marx. Whilst there are elements of social and political commentary littered among the lyrics here, I don’t think Alex Turner is making an overtly political point. I don’t know Turner’s political views. His avoidance of the subject lyrically and in interviews has been a sense of frustration for some, as articulated on Twitter by Reverend and the Makers frontman Jon McClure during recent British general elections.
I’m using the term hauntology more in the sense of futures that never came to pass haunting the present. The path not taken and the future that could have been still being out there somewhere. In many respects Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a science fiction album in the classic sense. Tranquility Base is the site of the 1969 moon landing. An obvious point maybe, but important to note.
There’s a sense here that Alex Turner has intentionally chosen modernism’s ultimate project – a human base on the moon – and is using that idea to show that in actual fact we haven’t progressed all that much since the end of the modernist period in the 60s. The opening track on the album Star Treatment contains lots of nods and subtle references to hauntology, modernism and the cultural retreat into retro, nostalgia and the lack of anything ground-breaking. ‘Imaginary highway’ ‘deep space’ ‘floating down the endless stream of great TV’ ‘I just wanted to be one of those ghosts’ ‘haunted’. All have double meanings and all could be nothing to do with what I’m talking about. Or they could be connected, building a picture as Turner often does; creating themes.
If Turner is making a hauntological statement (for want of a better phrase), then surely part of that is that popular culture and cultural output isn’t ground-breaking in the way that it was during the modernist era. Star Treatment again is indicative here of that theme.
The tipsy croon of a slightly deluded lounge singer on the moon? Yes. A commentary on stars who transformed popular music settling into highly paid Vegas residencies (and other variations of the classic sell-out)? Possibly.
I’m not going to analyse every song. That would be a bit much I’m sure you’ll agree. But throughout the album there are themes and lyrics that suggest Turner thinks somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn; that perhaps we could have had a very different future. Using life on the moon as the backdrop there is social commentary on the nature of consumerism, tech-media and how we use it, gentrification and a satire of what it is to be involved in the modern music industry. All delivered through witty one liners and incorporating cultural references like Neil Postman’s information-action ratio theory and science fiction films and TV. The specific mention of Blade Runner, a film where the future has failed and corporations are all powerful is worthy of mention. All suggesting modernism has perhaps failed on its own terms. The setting is absolutely crucial here. Using modernism’s ideal of a human base on the moon as the setting for what could be described as a 70s lounge rock album commenting throughout about ways that things have stagnated ticks a lot of boxes in terms of hauntology. The period that Turner seems to be obsessed with throughout the album is important in this context as well. The 70s is a key period for people who have written about hauntology like Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher. Culturally, the middle to the end of the 60s signalled an end of sorts to new creative directions in music and fashion. Politically, the 70s is seen as the end of the modernist ideals of social welfare, central planning and constant progress, replaced quite dramatically by neoliberalism, consumerism and the triumph of the individual over the collective. In terms of TV and even film, the 70s could perhaps be considered a last stand for the avant-garde, with the BBC increasingly turning away from avant-garde and futuristic TV output from the mid-80s onwards.
The Monkeys are a band that sometimes divides opinion and for no album has that been the case more than Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino but I genuinely think it is worth another listen. There’s something going on here. Alex Turner isn’t offering answers; he might not even be asking any questions. However it does strike me that he is passing comment, often satirically, occasionally seriously, about the state of society today and how we came to be here – and perhaps how things could have been instead. From an album that was a UK number one and was played on Radio One, that feels worthy of comment at least, and possibly even celebration.