Life & Culture

Why Alex Turner Is Modern Rock’s Last True Icon

Arctic Monkeys’ new album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ proves that the frontman is a creative force, comedian and cultural icon in one slick-backed package

  • TextTom Connick

For all the memes, .gifs, and ridicule, Alex Turner was in many ways always right. When the Arctic Monkeys frontman and Another Man cover star took to the soon-to-be-dropped mic to pontificate on how “rock and roll, it just won’t go away” at the 2014 BRIT Awards, he was met with bemusement, to put it politely. But who better to comment on the changing tide of guitar music than its standard bearer? A one-time Sheffield lad turned transatlantic, model-handsome heartthrob, Turner to this day epitomises the guitar-strumming, gum-chewing American-adoptive ideal – the rock and roll dream incarnate. In the wrong hands, such a speech would’ve come off like your half-racist uncle espousing the lack of ‘real music’ on the radio ‘these bloody days’. In Turner’s award-clutching paws, though, it became a mantra for modern rock’s last great iconic figure; proof that they were leading the charge forward. It seems befitting then, that with Arctic Monkeys’ follow-up album, Turner and the boys have sent rock and roll into the cosmos.

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is, essentially, an Alex Turner solo album. The liner notes for penultimate track Batphone even list him behind the drum kit, leaving hard-hitting Monkeys powerhouse Matt Helders to go pick up the Martinis, presumably. It’s impossible to listen to the record without picturing Turner twinkling the keys, alone in the dark, mumbling to himself about the state of the world and the price of vintage leather jackets these days. Actually, that’s a fairly accurate depiction of two thirds of the record – an introspective, self-referential soul, stabbing at the piano after a heavy night or five. And while the Dark Fruits cider-swigging factions of Twitter might kick off at the lack of big, chug-a-long belters on the album, it’s in that one-sidedness that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino truly takes flight.

A languid, lush traipse around a fictional hotel and casino on the moon, the record is elegantly constructed. Atop that ornate backing, though, Turner’s lyricism is the sharpest and most playful it’s been since their debut album. Where before he took aim at the everyday realities of drinking, fucking and fighting on the streets of modern Britain, here he’s skewering the absurdity of his newfound LA existence. “Who you gonna call, The Martini Police?” he coos on opener Star Treatment, clapping back at the cocksure idiocy he’s surrounded by daily. “There’s something in the lyrics that reminds me of Whatever People Say I Am…,” Turner agrees in an enlightening NME interview. “I’m tempted to say that it’s something to do with how blunt it is.”

It’s not all smarmy soundbites aimed at his peers, though. He wrestles with his own past throughout – “I’ve played to quiet rooms like this before” goes One Point Perspective (which is admittedly hard to imagine given the overnight success of the band), while Four Out Of Five finds him tackling the pressures of a career in the spotlight. He’s aware of his present-day perception as a borderline prattish performer, too – “I tried to write a song to make you blush,” he sings on Science Fiction, “but I’ve a feeling that the whole thing may well just end up too clever for its own good – the way some science fiction does.” Perhaps the best lines on an album full of iconic lyrics, on She Looks Like Fun he knocks himself down a peg or ten: “I'm so full of shite, I need to spend less time stood around in bars waffling on to strangers all about martial art and how much I respect them.”

It’s this knowing dissection of his own psyche – and the borderline control-freak nature of Tranquility Base…’s one-man-band construction – that makes Turner such a star. Arrogance, self-flagellation, and the ability to say daft things but them still become poster-worthy – all the best qualities of a pop culture icon are wrapped up in Alex Turner’s Tranquility Base… persona. That he survived the meme machine of his post-BRITS speech feels like proof that he’s timeless – if the internet (and a somewhat dodgy allegiance with Miles Kane) can’t bring him down, no one will.

“I always wanted to be one of The Strokes,” Turner sings as the opening line to Tranquility Base. It’s a sentence that’s become ubiquitous – one of the only snippets of info that managed to leak in the month-plus build-up to the record’s release. It’s also a wry nod to the Monkeys’ indie-rock legacy, and a needless sentiment. Arctic Monkeys aren’t part of the indie-rock brat pack any more. With Alex Turner at the helm, and their sixth LP let loose on the world, they’re a creative and cultural movement all of their own. That rock and roll won’t go away – not as long as Turner’s around.

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is out now