REVIEW: ARCTIC MONKEYS – TRANQUILITY BASE HOTEL & CASINO (2018)
One of the biggest rock bands in the world is set to release one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year, and Alex Turner doesn’t want to talk about it. Outside of a handful of interviews with the Arctic Monkeys’ frontman, the marketing surrounding the release of the British band’s sixth album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, has been internationally sparse, with the album being announced just weeks prior to its release date and no singles having been rolled out beforehand.
Of the pre-release press published, including a Los Angeles Times feature and a Pitchfork track-by-track interview, Turner remains tight-lipped and reserved, even a bit lost when trying to describe the curiously themed new album. However, to longtime Arctic Monkeys fans this type of reluctance in words from Turner is nothing new: no Instagram, no retweets, no sitting on a late-night talk show telling the world how a tune came to be about. Like any great musician with mystique, if you want to get to the core, the very essence of the craft and songwriting, you have to listen to the album. Turner opens up on the songs, but that’s usually all you get.
The details that did trickle out prior to the release of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino were admittedly a bit peculiar: a taqueria on the moon, songs written on a birthday piano, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” loungey, Alex Turner has beard? It’s no surprise fans would be in a frenzy trying to piece the whole thing together, especially having been five long years since the release of the critically and commercially praised AM. The Arctic Monkeys have been beloved rock stars in the UK since their 2006 debut, but the stomping, arena-ready AM was finally their breakout in the United States. With all the success of a fifth album, the natural notion would be to stick with that direction: heavy guitars, hip-hop-infused melodies, confessional songs about late-night calls, late-night thoughts and knee socks. But, that wasn’t how it went. Not for the first time, or likely the last, the Arctic Monkeys have shifted their sound.
Though there isn’t anything in their discography much like it, if you had to pick a previous Arctic Monkeys album that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino most embodies, it’s 2009’s Humbug. The quartet’s third studio album represented a noticeable shift from their early wound-up brash ditties to more flushed-out, psychedelic trances. The album as a whole has sort of a menacing quality to it, and it’s hard not to listen to “She Looks Like Fun” and “Golden Trunks” without recalling that exploratory realm. Of course, this time around Turner often lightens the mood, on “She Looks Like Fun” he howls “Good Morning/ Cheeseburger/ Snowboarding” before the emphatic chorus growl. “Dance as if somebody’s watching, because they are” he sings later on the track before ripping into a very welcomed, piercing guitar solo, one of the album’s few highlighting showcases of the instrument.
Getting back to loungey, album opener “Star Treatment” is as loungey as the title and cover art (consisting of a model hotel Turner handcrafted) would imply. If you look past the lyrics for a minute, the slow-building, pleasant tune hooks you, before the novelty crackle of the “martini police.” It’s no surprise “Four Out Of Five” became the lead single, as it’s as much of a jam as jams get on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. What begins as a darker, hypnotic tale of that taqueria on the moon flourishes into an all-out singalong: “Take it easy for a little awhile/ Come and stay with us/ Four stars out of five.” It’s those type of moments that surprise you on this album. Maybe Turner and company knew exactly what they were doing all along?
Lyrically, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is noticeably on a different, sure, planet than AM. Turner trades his familiar heavy-heart longings and love-sick adorations for sly observations, scientific lingo, and even some political banter. Of course, Turner, now 32, likely has moved beyond honest odes to drunk dialing, but did anyone expect him to sing the line “The leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks” as found on “Golden Trunks?” With that said, this by no means comes off as a political album, or even a scientific one, they are just phrases and takeaways that phonetically fit the song. But even these out-of-the-ordinary spikes of knowledge aren’t entirely beyond Turner‘s reach (anyone else have to lookup Letraset?).
Nonetheless, there are still meaningful and poignant reflections on the new album. Even just prior to the “Golden Trunks” wrestler line, Turner effortlessly delivers “You slowly dropped your eyelids, when true love takes a grip it leaves you without a choice.” On the playfully harmonized, and titled “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip,” subjects of “data storage” and “bastard Latin” are different, but thoughtfully anchored with “There are things I can’t explain to you and those I hope I don’t ever have to,” and “I’ve got a laser guiding my love that I cannot adjust.” Turner may play the part of a weirdo who grows a goatee and buys a one-way ticket to the moon, but there’s more on his chest than that, there’s more depth here, and he can only disguise it so much.
If there is a place AM most glimmers on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, it’s the title track. Delicately paced drum beats and synths set the mood to a dreamy hymn of groove and interstellar infatuation. Undeniably the sexiest song on the new album, Turner lyrically tops it off: “Pull me in close on a crisp eve baby/ Kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob.” Don’t dare ask him what he means by that, just relish it for the scene it creates, one you wish existed.
Yes, it’s definitely different, but Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is damn near as good as AM, or anything else the Arctic Monkeys have ever done. If AM 2 was the album the Arctic Monkeys were supposed to make next, they would have made it. But that was never an option, and Turner may be the only person in the world who can explain why– or then again, he probably can’t. It’s at a point now where you just have to trust every decision the Arctic Monkeys make, because Turner’s vision is clearer than anything we can see, and it is yet to be wrong.