Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

by Kyle Kersey Rating:7 Release Date:2018-05-11
Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

I just wanted to be one of the Strokes 
Now look at the mess you made me make.

The opening line of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino passes as a nod to the influences behind the early work of Alex Turner’s Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not bleeds the very same guitar-driven post-punk revivalism that made the Strokes such an early success in the UK. Brimming with youthful exuberance, the Arctic Monkeys debut release is still the best-selling debut album in British recording history (and my favorite Arctic Monkeys release to date), propelling the group from the London underground to an overnight sensation. Every one of their first five records reached the top of the British charts.

However, this influx in popularity wouldn’t occur in the States until 2013 when the band released AM, buoyed by the hype surrounding groovin’ singles like “Do I Wanna Know?” and “R U Mine?”. Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age (who also made a guest appearance) aptly described the album as “a really cool, sexy after-midnight record… It's not disco [as such], but it's like a modern, dancefloor sexy record.”

I wonder how Homme would describe Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino; early Bowie meets lounge bossa nova and a Kubrick-esque sense of paranoia and isolation? Placed in the near future of 2019, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino constructs (quite literally given the album cover) a futuristic resort on a recently colonized moon as a framework for societal critiques of the egocentric obsession with social media and the disillusionment of fame, as well as exploring their place in all this mess. It’s still about as 1970s as you can get (hell the concept of the album is basically just “what if we set Hotel California on the moon?”), but it’s a shift away from the sleek, groovy guitar rock of AM to a mix of piano heavy songwriting, active yet funky bass lines, and focus on the bizarre; a turn from Black Sabbath to Pink Floyd.

In fact, apart from the nocturnal vibes, not much transfers over from AM. “Star Treatment” and the aforementioned verse are the introduction to this dystopian sci-fi universe, a hazy perversion of tropical lounge music featuring some of the symphonic elements usually reserved for Turner’s side project, The Last Shadow Puppets. It sets the tone for the rest of the album, showcasing a return to form for Turner as a witty lyricist armed pop-culture references and wink-and-nod croons like “Everybody's on a barge floating down the endless stream of great TV” and "Love came in a bottle with a twist off cap / Let's all have a swig and do a hot lap." His seductive vocal delivery works to lure you to this planetary hideaway while still maintaining some distance.

“One Point Perspective” continues the serene lounge theme with more conversational lyrics, though it’s a conversation is with a directionless, delusional drunk. If there’s one thing the Arctic Monkeys can do, it’s set a mood and a location, somewhere between the full-bar at the Overlook Hotel and the centrifuge of Discovery One.  The psychedelic lounge tunes give way to unsettling paranoia and a growing sense of dread, with the true point of transition being the wonderfully proggy title track and capped off on “She Looks Like Fun”, the closest thing to an early Pink Floyd track Turner’s ever penned. It's actually quite creepy when it wants to be without ever sacrificing its humor.

Their dive into American politics can be hit or miss. There are several references to the recent Presidential election and Donald Trump, most notably on “Golden Trunks”:

The leader of the free world
Reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks
He's got himself a theme tune
They play it for him as he makes his way to the ring

Humorous as it may be, it’s also very much out of place considering the rest of “Golden Trunks” presents itself as the album’s one true love song.  Extraneous lines like these are a habit that Turner falls back on all too often. In fact, the disjointed nature of his lyrics will probably be a turn off to the average rock music fan because unlike most mainstream rockers, he doesn’t use words to tell a story per se but rather to paint a vivid picture or set a mood, formulating wordplay in a way that’s more akin to underground rappers than anything else.

Leading up to this release, there was significantly less brouhaha surrounding Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino than there was for AM, in large part due to the decision to withhold the release of any promotional singles. I originally thought this was a marketing gimmick, a way to sell that the band’s new musical direction as flying in the face of the commercialism and social-media marketing that the band lampoons for much of the album. But upon further review, I think Turner’s new musical direction isn’t conducive to catchy singles like it was with AM. “One Point Perspective” and “Four Out of Five” are about as close as it comes, the latter of which garnered its own music video and is probably the most enjoyable in a vacuum. It plays like an advertisement for this disturbing hotel with ghoulish harmonies and acoustic arpeggios layered in to give it a "Hotel California" vibe. But it's nowhere near as accessible as the singles off AM. And that’s a good thing, because this is the most ambitious journey the Arctic Monkeys have ever undertaken. The bizarre universe that Turner invites us really isn't that much more bizarre than the one we currently inhabit. However, even though I enjoy Turner’s creative vision, I can’t help but feel as though something is missing on the music end of the spectrum.

Let me explain: there’s a fantastic moment about half way through Radiohead’s now beloved Kid A that has sort of come to define the experience of that album for me (I know, a music writer fawning over Radiohead in a review not concerning Radiohead deserves its own tile in pretentious music journalism bingo, but I think this at least partially helps to illustrate where I’m coming from with all this). It’s strange to think of it now, but in 2000, Radiohead was the next big radio rock act. They were riding the high off OK Computer, and all they really had to do to solidify their place at the top of the rock world was drop another great rock album (keyword being “rock album”).

Instead they made Kid A, a claustrophobic album as narrow in its commercial appeal as it was ambitious in its electronic experimentation; possibly the boldest statement of artistic integrity we’ve seen this side of the millennium. With about a minute left on the song “Optimistic”, Radiohead erupts into a loose jam. It’s one of only three songs on the album to prominently feature guitar and it's the first time the band breaks away from their reserved, calculated sound for a moment of musical freedom. The music finally breathes.

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino never has that moment; there’s a sonic progression from sleepy to spooky but never a feeling of resolution, never a moment where the music cascades out from the tightly wound bass driven songwriting. There’s no climax.

I see a lot of parallels between these two albums. By no means do I think this album is as precise or experimental as Kid A, but it really feels like Alex Turner’s statement of artistic merit over commercialism. In an interview with NME, he says that he “couldn’t write AM part two”, but he could have. It probably would have sold more copies and received mainstream airplay, as well as general praise from the music media. But instead, he wrote this; something challenging and polarizing and genuinely hard digest at times.

Think back to that opening line about the Strokes, which turned out to be the polar opposite of Radiohead never evolving sonically and, as such, growing stale on only their third or fourth album. I remember when I first heard AM, I thought it was safe. Sure, it was their most refined album to date, but it was missing an edge. The production on it is somewhat flaccid, the performances a bit indifferent, completely unlike the fresh, potent offerings in their first few releases. It was okay, but not all that exciting to listen to. With maturity came languor. And I can’t really say that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is an improvement in the energy category – the first half is downright sleepy – but what it lacks in raw vigor, it makes up for with its surreal premise and kooky narrative voice. In other words, I was never excited, but I was definitely interested, and that’s a step in the right direction.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars