In 2005, Alex Turner tumbled into fame as a street-corner chronicler: the freewheeling afternoons, the epic Shakespearean nights, the lairy journeys home via taxi ranks or riot vans.
On a Sunday evening 13 years later, Arctic Monkeys regroup for the Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino tour, commanding the largest audience ever likely to assemble for cryptic dispatches from a futuristic, imaginary moon colony.
A drastic U-turn pulled at their commercial peak, the Monkeys’ outre sixth LP is not arena fodder. It alludes to knotty modern conundrums – questions of consumerism, hyper-reality, accelerating technology – in the least helpful manner imaginable. To complicate things further, you wouldn’t trust its narrators – spaced eccentrics with short attention spans and hallucinatory tendencies – to tell you the time, let alone the passage of Turner’s meticulous, fantastical history.
Yet here are 20,000 of his acolytes, waiting to be told.
The remarkable album and its retro-futurist aesthetic loom large over this show – the opener of a four-night run – though only four Tranquility songs make the setlist.
Dressed up like the VIP lounge of an interstellar cruise ship, the stage is flanked by big-screen relays with a Top of the Pops 2-style filter, like lost transmissions surfaced by 30th-century crate diggers.
In a grey suit and pink shades, shirt severely unbuttoned, Turner embodies showbiz elan even as his insouciance parodies it. No longer at home in a leather jacket, Turner has developed an immunity to rock’n’roll bravado, dressing like a supply teacher and addressing the audience sparingly, with suave grunts or slurred asides.
On opener “Four Out of Five”, he sings: “The only time that we stop laughing is to breathe or steal a kiss” then pauses to blow us a kiss. Elsewhere, little such frippery.
The band is here to energise the crowd: Matt Helders, for instance, closes “Four Out of Five” with a drum solo like a bullet train coming off the rails. Turner, on the contrary, taunts them. He introduces songs by title alone, casual as you like, as if there weren’t hundreds present who have counted down the years to once again scream words not long ago emblazoned across their pencil cases and MSN status bars.
Perhaps they expected jokes – cheeky anecdotes from the Sheffield boy done good. No, not tonight. He sounds like somebody’s dad DJ-ing a seaside town disco. “I’d like to play you a song from our second LP, Favourite Worst Nightmare – this one’s called ‘Teddy Picker’!” he announces. The crowd cheer hesitantly, perhaps wondering if they’re the butt of an obscure joke.
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Isn’t it galling to be toyed with like this, by the rock stars paid to entertain you? The pushback against Tranquility-era Monkeys – which includes a graffitied coffin in Sheffield captioned “Hey Alex... How’s California?” – stems from a conviction among stalwart fans that Turner is now rich and indulgent.
But indulgence, over the years, has become his secret weapon. It’s fuelled his tongue-twister riddles and audacious poetic licence, his transition beyond observation and into timelessness. A prescient lyric from “Teddy Picker”, delivered tonight with offhand glee, rebukes hysteria over whether they’ve fallen out of touch: “Who’d want to be men of the people/ When there’s people like you?”
In fact, Turner’s most memorable lyrics have always flirted with obscurity. Midway into the set, men dressed head to toe in Topman spill into the aisles yelling “505”, neither quite sure what the other thinks it means. Likewise the 2009 single “Crying Lightning”, an odyssey of inscrutable metaphors that vex none of the thousands bellowing it back like a football chant.
The greatest-hits setlist spotlights a through-line in Turner’s work, from anti-industry sloganeering and lyrical abstraction to his present attitude of postmodern scepticism, his rejection of the entire rock construct.
That construct, of course, is responsible for much of the Monkeys’ greatest music. And so, thanks to his evergreen wit, crowd-pleaser singalongs to “Do I Wanna Know” and “Dancing Shoes” slot in just fine. After a hellraising “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”, Turner offers some artisanal gratitude: “How kind you are on the Sabbath.”
Although some Tranquility gems remain unexplored live, it’s testament to Turner’s authorial dexterity that, with a swath of fans audibly undecided on the new stuff, he pulls off tonight’s bloody-minded spectacle without sacrificing the radio rock or weirdo left turns.
To close the encore, “R U Mine?” riffs helter-skelter as waves of moshers slice diagonal, leaving tumbledown rows like contrails across the arena floor. Once it finishes, Helders stands by his kit applauding while his frontman hobbles madly across the stage.
Crowd roaring, Turner rambles the song’s refrain a capella, like a drunk prophet: “She’s a silver lining/ Lone ranger riding through an open space...” Then, with a secret cue to his bandmates, he croons an illegible slur, summons a drum thunderclap, and strikes his guitar for a final, mindless rock’n’roll exorcism.
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