Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner has always seamlessly incorporated his love for classic cinema into the band’s music — even back in the day when they were singing about drunken nights out in Sheffield. Ennio Morricone, in particular, has been a sort of muse for the songwriter, discernible from the organ sample in 505 which is lifted directly from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and the orchestral flourishes of Turner’s side project The Last Shadow Puppets. But Arctic Monkeys’ newest album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, may be their most overtly cinematic output yet. The record is an ambitious and stunning piece of world-building. The sound — laid-back, Bowie-esque, piano-heavy tunes, reminiscent of jazz lounges and hotel lobbies — is light years away from the catchy guitar hooks that have dominated their oeuvre. Tranquility Base is a giant middle finger to the weighty expectations following the astronomical success of AM; a liberation from being pigeonholed as the saviour of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a sprawling retro sci-fi odyssey that George Lucas could’ve concocted himself — imagine Finn and Rose taking a detour to a casino on the moon instead of Canto Bight and you’ve got the vibe nailed.
Tranquility Base is a layered piece of storytelling, constructed from astringent abstract poetry, all of which takes several listens to decipher. Turner’s voice embodies the “narrator,” a member of a house band performing in the eponymous Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino — a luxury resort built on the now-colonised moon after the human race’s departure from Earth. The narrator reminisces about his home planet now that the band’s residency is playing host to lackluster crowds. This kooky premise can only be expected from Turner, a lyricist whose scintillating tongue-in-cheek humour has been a mainstay of his body of work. Borrowing heavily from sci-fi cinema and literature, the lyrics adopt the same critical approach as the material that inspired them as a means of holding a mirror up to the world. Turner has said that Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire kickstarted his fascination with science fiction, for the way it exemplifies the genre’s acute ability to deconstruct society.
Throughout the album, lyrics paint a picture of this not-so-distant capitalist dystopia: “Four out of Five” describes a “taqueria on the roof” of the hotel called Information Action Ratio. The name refers to the feeling of helplessness when confronted by an overabundance of information. It’s one of the more subtle political references in an album littered with them, from “The leader of the free world / Reminds you of a wrestler in tight golden trunks” (“Golden Trunks”) to “Breaking news, they take the truth and make it fluid” (“American Sports”). Turner isn’t coy about it either — on “Science Fiction,” he admits: “I want to make a simple point about peace and love / But in a sexy way where it’s not obvious / Highlight dangers and send out hidden messages / The way science fiction does.” The record is rich in intricate nuggets of symbolism and allusions to topics as specific as virtual reality and binge-watching. The cinematic grandeur of the album is so remarkably clear, one could imagine what the final product of the fake 60s X-Men movie he teased a few years ago would’ve looked like.
The plentiful references to film in the album are a sensory treat for those who enjoy a good Easter Egg. “Star Treatment” echoes a phrase likely to have been uttered by obnoxious film students everywhere: “What do you mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?” Shoutouts to Park Chan-Wook (“Vengeance Trilogy wallpaper walls”) and Wong Kar-Wai (“Pattern language, in the mood for love”) are casually slipped in, and the track “American Sports” may or may not have a line about Run, Lola, Run. Turner croons about “panoramic windows looking out across your soul” and “reflections of the silver screen,” while he morosely sulks about a “stunning documentary that no one else unfortunately saw” as he lists his love for the cinematography and the score he listens to obsessively. The more you look into it, the more allusions to cinema bubble to the surface — it’s like the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book jam-packed into one album (and that’s a compliment).
The more hidden influences unearthed on the band’s press tour are a goldmine for anyone looking to expand their Letterboxd watchlist. The title of the second track, “One Point Perspective,” was inspired by the symmetrical shots found in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Turner explained in a radio interview:
“I think it’s quite unearthly unsettling as a view when it’s used ‘cause you’re not sort of used to seeing it, there’s something harmonious about that. There’s something about the feeling that this creates in these movies that I think it’s in tune with the type of ideas we’re exploring in the lyrics on this tune.”
This strange, but ultimately comforting feeling that Turner was aiming for with the album is apparent in the way the band subverts expectations, then takes the listener through a smooth, lazy dreamscape over the course of 11 tracks.
The distinctive visuals that films can offer are a major source of inspiration for the futuristic, not-of-this-world quality that Tranquility Base captures. He turned to directors like Federico Fellini and Jean-Pierre Melville, and for the latter, he was drawn to a trio of films in particular — Un Flic, Le Cercle Rouge, and Le Samouraï — which all feature a jazz lounge club as an integral element to the story. “And the clubs in these films were often very obviously film sets, which is something that interested me as well,” Turner said in an interview with Pitchfork. “At the end of Le Samouraï, for instance, there’s a shot that zooms out from one of these clubs almost to the point where you see the film lights. So when I would sit at the piano and play these types of chords, I was thinking about those Melville interiors a lot.”
Decoding the panoply of references that represent the foundation of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino make it clear that the conspicuous cinematic quality of the album is entirely intentional. Like the shot in Le Samouraï, the album is not afraid to expose the gears turning behind the scenes. This patchwork of ideas and artistic influences threaten to overflow, but Turner manages to keep it all contained in a sweeping narrative of oddball misadventure. Following in the footsteps of the films that are embedded in its DNA, the album depicts a grandiose sci-fi epic of its own. It’s the kind that’s worthy of its own film adaptation — or at least a scene in a Valerian sequel.