HomeMusicArctic Monkeys Triumph With Visionary Space-Age Record, 'Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino'

Arctic Monkeys Triumph With Visionary Space-Age Record, ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’

“Arctic Monkeys sure have changed a lot.” The interesting thing about that sentence is that anyone could have said it at any time over the last decade or so and it would still be true.

Thirteen years ago, four lads from Sheffield, England uploaded a couple of songs to a website called MySpace, signed a record deal, and then accidentally released the fastest-selling debut album in British history, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. The record won a Mercury Prize, Brit Award, and easily slid its way onto various Rolling StoneBest Of” and “Greatest of All Time” lists. Alex Turner, the lead singer, lyricist, and dorky-looking frontman of Arctic Monkeys was only 20 years old at the time. With all that pressure on him, Alex did what anyone else would have, and decided to release four more records to massive critical acclaim – all debuting at #1 in the UK.

Arctic Monkeys Press Shot
Photo Credit: Zackery Michael

Each record, though wildly successful in its own right, strongly varied in sound and theme from whatever came before or after it. While the debut focused on infectious hooks, dancefloor singalongs, and small-town English banter about “knackered Converse” and “tracky bottoms tucked into socks,” Favourite Worst Nightmare abandoned pubs and youth for dizzying wordplay, elevated production, and emotional depth.

After that, Humbug doubled-down on its own vulnerable sensibilities with a captivating angst and unwavering late-night poetry, marking the beginning of Arctic Monkeys leaving England behind for bigger and better things: namely, New York City and Los Angeles. The follow-ups Suck It And See and AM catapulted the band to new heights: sexy rock ‘n’ roll, model girlfriends, motorcycles, dirty guitar, and – most notably – massive commercial success in America.

So, where does a band like that go from there? Turns out, the only direction is way, way up to the stars. Returning with their first album in five years, Arctic Monkeys invite us into space with Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. And boy, have they changed a lot.

In an unprecedented move, the band provided no new single or official record clips in anticipation of its release – and it’s not difficult to understand why. The record’s opening lines not only reveal everything we need to know about Tranquility Base, but what exactly Alex Turner has been up to for the last several years: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes / Now look at the mess you made me make / Hitchhiking with a monogrammed suitcase / Miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway.” The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll of AM are over, and now our frontman is picking up the pieces through an existential reckoning and lounge-act performance we barely feel privy to but are blessed to hear.

On all accounts, there’s no reason that Tranquility Base should work. Alex sets aside his slick electric guitar for a baby grand piano, abandons his subtle growl for a more mature croon, and more often embraces the melodies and composition of his side project, The Last Shadow Puppets, than strictly Arctic Monkeys material. While previous records acted as definitive soundtracks to teenage kickbacks and late-night city haunts, Tranquility Base feels like it belongs playing over the final season of Mad Men when Don Draper begins to lose his nerve but reach existential clarity. And yet somehow, it all totally works.

The opening track “Star Treatment” paints a vivid scene of Alex sitting at the piano in his mid-century modern home, reflecting over ghostly “cheap dates,” the “martini police,” and chiding someone for having not seen Blade Runner. Despite no explicit mention of it, you visualize a messy, late-60’s swinging party playing out behind him as the song transitions into the chorus-less yet equally captivating “One Point Perspective.” Perhaps overtly challenging the way modern ears listen to music by hopping between artist and album on streaming sites, Tranquility Base demands that its audience listen in order from beginning to end as each track bleeds into the next.

“American Sports” takes us to the skies as the opening lines ask, “So when you gaze at earth from outer space / does it wipe that stupid look off of your face?” The jazzy piano, croony vocals, and bleak looks of technology feel reminiscent of Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, as Alex sings, “My virtual reality mask is stuck on ‘Parliament Brawl’ / Emergency battery pack just in time for my weekly chat with God on video call.” The space-y futurism of the songs reach new heights on the album’s title track as Alex channels “Life On Mars?” Through a funky-sounding bass, psychedelic 60’s effects, and a voice painfully and eerily close to Bowie, we’re invited to check into the Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino.

Despite its pointed nostalgic sound, tracks like “Golden Trunks” do little to make us forget what’s currently happening on planet Earth with lyrics like “the leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks.” The headiness continues with the album highlight “Four Out Of Five,” which genuinely regales about the possibility of rating new restaurants that have begun to gentrify neighborhoods on the moon. Again, there’s no reason any of this should be working, but track after track, it does.

Arctic Monkeys Live Press Photo
Press Photo taken by Zackery Michael

Not even the most ridiculous song title on the album, “The World’s First Monster Truck Front Flip” is less about trucks and more about photography and advertising. Another strange thematic allusion to Mad Men, the repeated phrase, “you push the button and we’ll do the rest” stems from an 1888 advertisement from Kodak pushing their new box camera. The record’s uniquely 60’s sound (quite reminiscent of The Last Shadow Puppets’ The Age of the Understatement) manages to blend with its futuristic imagery and timely points of reference in a way that feels undeniably time-bending. Almost self-aware in its obscurity, “Science Fiction” includes the line, “I want to stay with you my love / The way some science fiction does.”

Just when you feel you’ve fully wrapped your head around the conceit of Tranquility Base, “She Looks Like Fun” mentions visiting “Wayne Manor on a memorable New Year’s Eve” before “Batphone” reminds us, “Have I told you all about the time that I got sucked into a hole through a hand-held device? […] I’ll be by the Batphone if you need to get a hold.” Its absurdity cannot be ignored, but the earnestness of the bluesy guitar, jazzy piano, and soft drums captivate you before you can even laugh.

The final track “The Ultracheese” reaches peak self-awareness in its own romantic schmaltz. Alex admits to a literal death while writing a song perhaps even too cheesy for him, but not cheesy enough for his piano, as he sings, “What a death I died writing that song / […] It stays between us, Steinway and his sons / Because it’s the ultracheese.” Despite spending much of our time above the clouds and in outer space, the record comes full circle and brings us back down to the ground. We’re at this swinging party that may or may not exist, and our voice is coming to terms with what’s happened. Never one to lose his own humanity – even when singing about space – Alex sings Tranquility Base’s final lines: “I’ve done some things that I shouldn’t have done / But I haven’t stopped loving you once.”

Sure, more than once the album sounds like the ramblings of a friend who went off the rails years ago but who you haven’t heard from in quite awhile. And behind the time-bending metaphors and easy-listening crooning are empty spaces where Jamie Cook’s guitar could’ve been erupting more. And there’s certainly always more room available for Matt Helders’ unspeakably underrated drumming in nearly every song. But yet, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino just works. Despite its nostalgic piano melodies, futuristic harmonies, and timely references, it will remain ahead of its time for awhile. Bound to be misunderstood, it’s a record that swallows you whole when you take just a slight step inside.

Arctic Monkeys have changed a lot over the years, but we should all be willing to join them at Tranquility Base. Our stay is bound to be out of this world.

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino Rating: 9.5/10

Highlights: “Four Of Of Five,” “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino,” “One Point Perspective,” “Science Fiction”


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