Album: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Released: May 11th, 2018
Highlights: Star Treatment, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Four Out of Five
Between “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” and “AM”, amidst the transition the Arctic Monkeys took from lovable and snarky dorks to lovable and snarky cool dudes, many have been the constant underlying themes to that journey. The boys could always write and execute aggressive and effective rock songs; whilst Alex Turner and his sharp pen created smart wordy lyrical content to serve as the edge of the sharp razor of the Arctic Monkeys’ sound. In “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, the band’s sixth record, those themes no longer coexist; in fact, it is arguable their once perfect symbiosis has turned sour, as one organism had devoured the other after a full decade of peaceful cohabitation.
It does not take the full length of the album’s opener, “Star Treatment”, for one to realize which side has come out on top. As Turner engages in highly poetic almost free-verse musings in what seems to be an unusually personal tone, it is flagrant “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is, purposely or not, a stage for his lyrical ambitions rather than for his incredible skills as a music writer. And as the sole composer of pretty much all of the band’s material decides to take the reins more strongly than ever, Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley, Matt Helders, and everything else fans have come to know as Arctic Monkeys take a back seat.
With “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, Alex Turner aims, in both ambition and theme, for The Moon. Inspired by an assortment of science-fiction works, which used strange futuristic landscapes to talk about the problems of the world, Turner builds – as the title implies – a Hotel & Casino facility on Tranquility Base, the landing site of the Apollo 11. And his infatuation with his fictitious construction runs so deep that instead of accepting the role of an outside observer to the happenings in the hotel, Turner turns the Arctic Monkeys into the house band; the group plays as the guests arrive in the lounge; as they hang out at the taqueria on the roof, which has just gotten a four-star review; as they marvel at the technological wonders of the place; as they consume indigestible amounts of food and information right on the way to alienation; and as they gaze upon rockets being launched from the Earth while sipping a cocktail.
It is gorgeous imagery filled with layers of commentary on religion, media, politics, and contemporary behavior in general. And, more impressively, there is an astounding integration between music and theme, for by making the Arctic Monkeys play piano-led and keyboard-heavy 70s lounge pop, a music genre that was itself often concerned with space-age subjects, Turner evokes the hotel’s design and aura through sound.
In the end, though, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is a work of art that belongs to the field of music; and, as such, the most important components it contains are its songs. And therein lies the problem. Through the course of the record, Turner, Cook, O’Malley, and Helders prove they are a pretty capable lounge band, as they drop everything that defined their previous works and embrace, quite nicely, soft drumbeats, gentle guitar work, and layered slow-tempo lethargy, with the thick bass of O’Malley likely ranking as the sole component of their sound that made the transition in one piece.
However, as talented as the house band may be, somebody should have told the hotel managers at Tranquility Base that the group they have hired lacks songs. Rarely do any of the tracks here leave a considerable mark, because – in a case in which it is blatant the lyrics came before the music – the words completely subdue the tunes. Turner is so in love with what he wants to say that the melodies and instrumentals become an afterthought; they are there to, merely, serve as a bed upon which he can distill his poetry. And what he has written is so irregular in metric and rhyme that the majority of the record consists of steady grooves that lack interesting chord progressions or rhythmic shifts.
Additionally, it is not exactly helpful that, stylistically and rhythmically, all tunes land pretty close to one another, as the Arctic Monkeys, showing praiseworthy commitment, fully throw themselves into the role of a lounge band. Melodic peaks and notable songs do appear on occasion, as “Star Treatment”, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, and “Four Out of Five” succeed in finding remarkable moments within the confines of this retro-yet-futuristic sound that is strongly shackled by the lyrical content it carries. Yet, they are far from being enough from stopping the album from being the first complete dud in a career that, up to this point, had only offered impressive works.
Within music, or any art form, change is absolutely necessary, especially when one considers that rock, as a genre, has long ago stopped being the leading style in terms of innovation; and it is indeed commendable the Arctic Monkeys took such a grand leap, and with such dedication, into what will, probably, turn out to be a one-time-only detour into lounge pop. However, with so many tracks that lack distinctive features and that end up merging into one another out of a sheer lack of character, it cannot be denied the result of that bravery ended up being negative regardless of any thematic victories.