Alex Turner adjusting his cardboard hotel model

In praise of the world builders

We all have those albums that we keep returning to. As human beings, we crave the familiar. Investing time in new music is often a wonderful thing, but it can also feel like work, as our brains exert effort to process new information. Those albums that we know hit a sweet spot of reliable satisfaction, and that’s why we keep coming back. In recent times, I’ve found myself returning to a bunch of albums from 2018. It’s long enough ago to feel like a markedly different time, but also not too recent for the music to feel overplayed. The record I most frequently turn to is Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, the divisive sixth album from Arctic Monkeys. Certain writers on this website unreservedly hate it, but it’s one of my favourite albums of recent years. And the other day, I got thinking about why it pulls me in again and again.

I went back to how my love for Tranquility Base started before I’d even heard it. I came to it with baggage: I’d been a fan of the band since I was 15 years old. The memories of excitedly buying their first two singles from Driffield’s Woolworths, and drinking in the eloquent wit that Alex Turner poured across the debut album, are still vivid in my mind today. I still think Turner is a genius of a songwriter, but in adulthood, I’d begun to want more from him and his band than catchy, surface-level rock tunes. By the time murmurings of a new release had begun in 2018, 5 years had passed since 2013’s AM – long enough for an artist to change both musically and personally. And then they released this trailer for a new album:

There was something so captivating about these 42 seconds. Partly it was the mystery: all we had before the release of the album was a mysterious title. But more than that, it was the detail. That nostalgic synth tone. The usage of grainy film to showcase the cardboard imagery. The orange glow of the lighting. I watched it again and again, and judging from the comments on the video, I wasn’t the only one. Eventually, I heard the album, and quickly became incredibly taken with it. But even after hearing the whole thing with the anticipation removed, my love for the album came back to the detail. In creating this conceptual, science-fiction-inspired record set in a hotel complex on the moon, Turner and his band had done more than just create a collection of 11 songs. They’d built a world, to be visited through headphones. And every time I listen, I’m utterly and completely there.

Given that I seemed to be relatively alone in my rapturous love of this album, I assumed my affection for it would wane eventually. But it simply hasn’t, and I think the reason is the world-building aspect of Tranquility Base. Turner himself told Annie Mac in an interview supporting the record that “some of my favourite records feel like places you can go and sort of move in for a bit”. With this record, you really can. In the sound design, the pacing and the lyricism, you’re watching the lounge band, you’re hearing the stories about how good the recently-opened taqueria is, and you’re touching the wallpaper in this place that feels like a 1970s vision of the future. You’re immersed – and this immersion in built worlds is a major factor in why I love the album format.

Along with albums, I love films, and a common theme they share is this ability to immerse. In a cinema, with the lights off and no distraction, you’re consumed completely in the creation in front of you. It’s the same with an album. The album artwork initiates a mood, a feeling, an outline – which the musical contents colour in. Not every album focuses on tight concepts which build vivid worlds, and plenty of my favourites don’t do this. But many of the ones that do hold a special place in my heart.

I’ll name two. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is a concept album that buries the listener deep within the Compton landscape. With his production choices, voicemail passages and rich storytelling, we’re with the young Kendrick as he navigates a treacherous crossroads in his adolescent life. Less conceptual narratively but certainly as much so in a thematic sense, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, through the usage of a universe of samples, takes you to a faraway holiday destination every single time you listen. These are worlds that you can visit, an hour at a time. And my fascination with world-building is very much alive and well in 2022. The Weeknd’s Dawn FM has a cohesive quality that takes you to a purgatory state between life and death via the discotheque. The detail of the album is why I had it relentlessly on repeat for the first two months of this year.

People have been building worlds for decades. David Bowie. Michael Jackson. Arcade Fire. Pop megastar ‘eras’ and accompanying tours. Ideas that sound crazy on paper, brought to life through music. Concepts that logic and rational thinking could destroy before we’ve even had a chance to visit. So this is my rallying cry: let’s give it up for the world builders out there. Keep dreaming up those hotel complexes on the moon and take us there, no matter how dumb they sound. For some of us, they’ll become a cherished destination we’ll return to when we need comfort.

Words by Tom Burrows

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