When you’re in a successful rock band who have spent just over a decade in the game you might often find yourself at a crossroads. Maybe you feel you’ve said all you had to say and thus the band gets put on hiatus (permanent or otherwise). Or maybe you think it’s time to try and coast on what you became known for, trading in inventive ideas for “hey, remember stuff like this?” Or, rarer yet, maybe you opt to go in a completely new direction. Typically, that newer direction tends to be guitar rock bands trading in their guitars for synthesizers. Now that that’s fallen out of fashion, though, bands may be finding themselves at an impasse. What they’ll all do remains to be seen. But since music is cyclical, guitar rock is back in style (again). And hey, here’s the new Arctic Monkeys record to come in at just the right ti-oh wait, never mind, looks like Alex Turner now owns a piano.
We last heard from Arctic Monkeys way back in 2013 with their blandly titled AM, an album that showed that their guitar rock stylings weren’t going away anytime soon. That album went on to become one of the most commercially successful albums from the group (and hey, that’s saying something considering that their debut was the fastest-selling debut album in Britain ever). Somehow that LP still sits near the top of most purchased vinyl records annually for several years now. But whatever people say Arctic Monkeys are, that’s what they don’t want to be (or something like that). Because instead of following up that album with yet another straightforwardly ROCK album, the band has made a bold zag towards a sound that’s not even in fashion right now. Lounge pop.
The best thing about Arctic Monkeys is that they’ve never made the same album twice. They’ve also proved album after album that they’re very keen to do whatever they want to do. We should all give them props for that, even if not every album is terrific. But even though they’ve changed it up on every album, the guitar riffs and general catchiness (mostly) always remained intact. That all has been upended on their sixth album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Guitars fade into the background for the most part, becoming more textural. Piano leads the way, and Alex Turner’s lyrics unfurl to become very loose stream-of-consciousness musings on technology and personal views on the world at large. On “One Point Perspective” (track 2 of an 11 track LP) Turner sings “bear with me, man, I lost my train of thought,” which works as essentially the thesis of the album.
But its cover art, album title, and general atmosphere would have you think otherwise. On the face of it, Tranquility Base seems to be a big concept album from the guys. You have a framing device of the entire album taking place at the title locale. Deeper into the album, there’s even an entire song devoted to the rooftop taqueria on the hotel called the Information-Action Ratio. But to tell you this is a concept album would be incredibly misleading. For the overarching premise of this hotel on the moon stuff is barely there. At points the album flirts with acting as if the band are playing a different band who are playing to a room in the hotel. Yet lyrically we’re mostly seeing inside the personal, specific view of Alex Turner as Alex Turner.
When you start to zero in what this album wants to achieve, things get a bit muddled. It’s almost as if they just weren’t sure how to sell it. Which is why they barely did. Leading up to this album, they didn’t release any single, allowing the listener to dive into fresh. It was a tactic that really does work in its favor considering every song does gel with the ones that surround it. But this uniformity in sound yet lack in total commitment to a theme is where the album falters quite a bit. To be fair, on your first listen of this album, everything blends together way too much. It’s hard to recall any specific song, and you easily could walk away with a bad taste in your mouth. But this album really works as a supreme grower. The more you listen to it, the more its melodies and hooks (which do exist here, even if you don’t initially realize it) rise to the surface. It rewards repeat listens, for sure. But at the end of it all, having listened to it many times now I’m still not sure what to do with it.
The album starts beautifully though with opener “Star Treatment,” whose background vocals, smooth bass, and twinkling synth bleeps really come to life almost immediately. Even the following track “One Point Perspective” keeps things going with some really pretty instrumentation. It has a guitar solo, sure, but the best part of the music is the bouncy, jazzy piano leads and bass work. In terms of the Arctic Monkeys adapting to a completely new style, they really seem to do it fairly effortlessly. The title track, which brings the concept forward, has a cool, darker atmosphere to it. Its 70s styled synthesizers really paint a picture in your head, and it’s easy to get lost in all the instruments slithering in and out of the song. “Four Out Of Five” is another great one, which again is heavy on the concept, but its hook is the stickiest on the entire LP. I absolutely adore the vocal melody and lyrics all over the chorus (specially the delivery towards the end of the song). The background vocals really highlight Turner’s lead to create a gorgeous sound-palette.
There are also incredible one-liner lyrical asides all over this LP that are brilliantly worded and delivered. “I’m a big name in deep space, ask your mates” and “technological advances really bloody get me in the mood” and “swamp monster with a hard-on for connectivity” are just a few of my favorites. Its clear after one or two listens that this is like pure unfiltered Alex Turner lyrically. He’s always been able to deliver quick jabs and gorgeously odd ideas into his music, but here he’s off the rails and just rambling. This is the best and worst thing about the album. For we get great throwaway lines like “what do you mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?” but overall the “themes” of the album can amount to “technology is stupid, man.” Hell, on the album’s final track we literally get a few lines about how we used to get knocks on the door, not knowing who it was, and how that was thrilling. The way Turner strings words together about technology is funny and poetic, but insightful it is not.
And perhaps that gets to the crux of the problem of this album. It’s has so many sounds and ideas that are almost there, but they never seem to reach full potential. “Golden Trunks” and “She Looks Like Fun” have some really nice lyrics but they come packaged with ugly instrumentals or off-putting vocal deliveries. The former has grating instruments while the latter has a chorus that gets robbed of enjoyment because of the gruff voice that repeats the title. Elsewhere, some songs just sound flat like “Batphone,” where the main melody is too at-odds with Turner’s vocals. For all of its good and bad things, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is certainly an interesting ride. It’s kind of fun to see a band indulging themselves on something so strange and alien to their core sound. And it’s nice that this album doesn’t quite sound like anything else being put out right now. But while they succeed in a shift in sound, they waver on totally executing everything they’re trying to do. The concept is barely there, the themes don’t totally land, and while the whole sounds good together it still doesn’t amount to anything substantially grand or important (even though it sometimes thinks it’s doing this). Maybe that’s kind of the point? Maybe it’s not all supposed to come together? Towards the end of the album, Turner muses on his writing process singing “so I tried to write a song to make you blush, but I’ve a feeling that the whole thing may well just end up too clever for its own good.” Just as the band wanted the whole album to (mostly) speak for itself, I’ll let that line sum up my thoughts on said album and leave it at that.
2.8 out of 5.