Arctic Monkeys’ eerie prediction of the dystopian present

Turner, on the cover of the Arctic Monkeys’ 7-inch “Tranquility Base B-Side”

A few years ago I was walking in San Francisco’s Mission District when I noticed, to my right, a young couple exiting their apartment in anticipation of the arrival of the ride-share vehicle they’d hailed by phone. I approached them just in time to watch the vehicle breeze past where they stood on the sidewalk, nestling into an unoccupied space just ten or fifteen feet down the street out of the way of traffic.

Commendable, I thought. Rarely does anyone take the time to consider his fellow man’s respective fortune these days. The emphasis upon Ich, Ich, Ich has become so Ick, Ick, Ick. The young woman, however, did not share my approval. Oh! she huffed, ignoring her boyfriend’s pleas for calm as she continued to clamor. I had to chuckle, as I strolled past. I’d seen variations upon this scene before. There is just no room in the present for flexibility. Everything has to come right to your door.

Extending beyond that is the more insidious element that has been introduced with the expectation of every one of our commandments being answered immediately. For this young woman, her personal needs (going somewhere that evening) took precedence over every other car that would have been forced to stop behind her chosen chariot.

In short, I’m not convinced technology has made us better. Sure, it’s improved some areas—who can deny the importance of a surgeon being able to call up another expert for a quick consultation, at a moment’s notice, before gearing up—but the majority of us mouth breathers have enjoyed owning incredibly powerful devices that fit into the palms of our hands and using them…for food delivery.

The point was to make everything in life expedient, at an ever-accelerating rate with the release of each new version of a smartphone each fall. Consider the state of mind that allows people to ease into—and then consider the wrench that, say, a pandemic would throw into it.

A better mind than mine will surely soon distill the marked disconnect between technology’s insistence upon turning us all into flabby fiends at home buzzing around on mobility scooters like in Wall-E, and the sacrifice required to make it through trying times. We are so woefully inept at dealing with anything outside our comfort zone. True, has been an aspect of human nature since time immemorial, but our ancestors simultaneously paired the instinctive aversion to change with an understanding that accomplishing anything in life requires a leap of faith’s entry fee. They adhered to that human instinct of movement; everything was not delivered to their door.

Late one night this past week I found myself walking again, this time through my neighborhood emptied due to the newest lockdown measure enacted by local government. I was listening to music, and “She Looks Like Fun,” one of a number of growers on Arctic Monkeys’s latest album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, began playing. The line “No one’s on the streets; We moved it all online as of March” passed from my phone to my headphones into my mind.

Whoa. I thought. Not content with being one of the era’s most talented musicians, and thoughtful lyricists, now we learn that Alex Turner has a little Nostradamus in him. (Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was released in May 2018.)

The whole album, which is, quite simply, phenomenal—and unparalleled in the annals of recent rock releases in its ability to pair complex themes to captivating sound—often feels like it sprung from the mind of a man who watched society on Earth disintegrate into a jumbled technological mess and took advantage of a cheap trip to outer space to clear his head. Or did he? Everything he tells us might have been experienced in his living room through a VR set. The uncertainty adds to the spell.

The first time the Monkeys’ newest album really hit home, I was on my way back to my hotel from the second night of the Osheaga Festival in Montreal. Turner and co. had headlined the main stage that evening, and I made sure to get there an hour early so I could post up against the makeshift apparatus constructed to house some of the on-stage tech. Two English ex-pats who’d had the same idea stood next to me. As they recounted tales of the old country, and their shared love for this band, I sat and waited in the heady glow bestowed by a scorching day, now tapered off into a pleasant evening.

Then, the Monkeys’ sign went up all in lights, and the show got going. By which I mean, Turner launched into the dystopian masterpiece, “Four Out of Five” and metaphorically punched me in the mouth. Walking back over a bridge infested by spiders on its railings, I couldn’t help but sift through the philosophical bent of that song.

Whenever I see someone lament the current predicament society finds itself in, promising never to take anything for granted again once a more normal version of life returns (ha, ha), I hearken back to Turner’s brilliant observation in “Four Out of Five”: one day, we’ll have figured out how to put a taco stand on the moon, and rather than revel in the technological prowess, some critic slap a rating of B- onto the establishment. In a few centuries’ time, that trip to the moon might be cause for cancellation on imperialist grounds.

I tend to trust people with a good handle on human nature. Or who’ve read a bit of history, and understand that humans are perhaps unique in their ability to become disaffected with what was once deemed incredible.

Turner is a trailblazer in this regard, launching a “WATCH OUT” to whoever will take the time to listen; what’s scary, and incredibly unsettling, is that he is so alone in this endeavor.

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