When I was in year 11, I was named Best Writer at a secondary school assembly.
The award had no great value attached to it – as it was not the school’s official prize-giving and some 40% of the year came away with similarly arbitrary titles – and everyone who received an award that day accepted it in full knowledge that what they had received was just another piece of paper. To this day, I have not once listed ‘Best Writer 2010-11’ on my CV or used it to impress someone in polite conversation. I have no idea where that piece of paper is now.
Nevertheless, that award became a source of anxiety for me in the years that followed. I had done nothing special to receive it, and regardless of whether I had, the title did not suggest anything particularly special about me. The best writer at Alderman White School was no match for Hemingway or Woolf, nor where they likely to have any exceptional characteristics at all. But although my ability to string a few coherent sentences together was not representative of some prodigious talent, I still felt a dull weight of expectation. Someone had believed that I was capable of good, maybe even great, things and to squander that would be a disservice to them and myself.
I’ve felt that weight on almost all of the other occasions that I’ve received acclaim. What had inspired people to enjoy the work I had created? I had no idea and still don’t most of the time. And by not knowing what has caused my success, a great anxiety swells up over how to recreate it. I feel it in the background, lightly but noticeably, whenever I sit down to write something. In the absence of financial ruin, serious tragedy, or imminent death, the great anxiety of my life has been over how to once again clear that low bar that I last cleared.
Mostly, I’ve coped with this through little acts of self-sabotage, such as leaving deadlines to the last minute, failing to apply for jobs I may be qualified for, and writing articles like this one when I could be earning serious money. All the time, these acts have shared a common goal – the goal of limiting my capacity for failure. You can’t lose a game that you choose not to play, and I could never fail to achieve my potential if I never let myself get too close to it.
Which brings us to Alex Turner; a man who has felt a much greater, and much more warranted, weight of expectation since Arctic Monkeys rocketed from local favourites to biggest band in the country over a decade ago. Turner has always been a good lyricist and a talented, precocious songwriter. In 2006, it wasn’t unreasonable to suggest that he might be the ‘voice of a generation’, and his lyrics on Whatever People Say I Am.. documented the lives of working-class teenagers in vivid details. Its follow-up expanded the band’s vision to comment on fame and excess without losing their down-to-earth charm. Turner was a poet, but not in the traditional sense, and he represented a possible break from tired working-class vs. middle-class, north vs. south, passion vs. intellect divide of 90s indie. He was a lad but he showed how you could be smart with it.
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes / Now look at the mess you made me make,”- ‘Star Treatment’
So says Turner on the much-quoted first line of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino – Arctic Monkeys’ staggering left-turn to Gainsbourg-esque abstract soul and sci-fi lyricism – and maybe it was true once. But since 2009’s Humbug, Turner’s writing has become increasingly caricatured and oblique, relying on old-fashioned rock-star clichés and silly overstretched metaphors. Instead of creating a new kind of star, he has fallen back on the safety of classic tropes. Tranquility Base… feels like the logical conclusion of this change, showcasing some of Turner’s worst rock-star posturing and his silliest metaphors, and I can see little acts of self-sabotage all over it.
There’s a lot to like about Tranquility Base…. Most notably, it sounds amazing, with a lushly-arranged mix of soft rock and lounge jazz that could have come from a 70s sci-fi series, and its lyrical conceit, that the album is set on a futuristic colony on the moon, is interesting. But it’s also very easy to work out what’s wrong with it.
For every genuinely funny line on the album, there are at least two howlers to follow, and sometimes it seems like Turner knows which lines are the bad ones. The title track is one of the album’s most coherent and memorable songs but it also contains the clanger “Kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob”, delivered with a knowing campy falsetto. On other songs, Turner will reference his own song-writing and criticise it in advance, as if he’s trying to pre-empt anyone who correctly points out that many of these ideas don’t really work. The result is an album that strives for greatness while shielding itself against failure. Rather than being a concept album about a hotel on the moon, Tranquility Base… is a concept album about Turner trying to write a concept album about a hotel on the moon.
Attempting to do something that is genuinely original is hard and Turner protects himself with irony throughout this album. He seems to know exactly what is wrong with these songs but he refuses to do anything to fix them. The goofy reverb on his vocals, the often nonsensical Alan Partridge-esque lyrics, and the difficult chorus-less nature of this album are not necessarily mistakes, they are the concept. It feels like a defensive move because by refusing to fix the obvious problems with the record, he is able to ignore the problems that he can’t fix. Tranquility Base…could have been a great album but Arctic Monkeys duck out before they even start to get close to that point, leaving Turner’s reputation as a potential genius intact. You can’t fail to write a great album, if you were never really trying to write one.
What’s even stranger is that there are moments on Tranquility Base… that feel like Turner’s most honest writing yet. On ‘She Looks Like Fun’, he nails an analysis of his LA years:
“I’m so full of shite
I need to spend less time stood around in bars
Waffling on to strangers all about martial arts
And how much I respect them.”
But these revealing lines are outnumbered by moments of mythologising and world-building that take us further away from the truth. Turner knows exactly what’s wrong with himself and his music but he refuses to change these things. In doing so, he protects himself from the short-term threat of failure but also stops himself from creating something brilliant. There are limits to what irony can do and the most disappointing thing about Tranquility Base… is that it lacks emotional weight because everything is played for laughs.
Like how The Last Shadow Puppets morphed from a loving tribute to Scott Walker into a grotesque performance piece on rock star decadence, Turner has taken the heart out of Arctic Monkeys and replaced it with mocking cynicism. It doesn’t matter if you think that Tranquility Base… is a bad album because that’s what it’s meant to be in many ways. That makes it hard to really hate it because it doesn’t try to make you feel anything at all. It’s a celebration of self-sabotage and bad judgement, from a man who is capable of so much more than that.
There’s also some arrogance to all of this, in the sense that you can only be frustrated with your abilities if you really think that you’re capable of greatness. But every step Turner takes towards genius reveals how much further he has to go and instead of taking that journey, he seems to have decided to stop growing and collapse in on himself. Arctic Monkeys once spoke for a generation but now they act as a tribute to Turner’s insecurities. There is a fine line between loving and hating yourself, and Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is that line.
Words by Conrad Duncan