A brand-reinventing excursion, a loose concept album full of quirky tangents.
What a difference a birthday makes. After five straight albums peddling iterative permutations of rowdy guitar rock, Arctic Monkeys’ latest LP, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, is populated by spaced out lounge pop records, all penned on a Steinway Vertegrand piano frontman Alex Turner was given the day he turned 30. The result is a brand-reinventing excursion, a loose concept album full of quirky tangents, quotable lyrics and a startling paucity of tasty riffage.
Longtime listeners familiar with the band’s tendency to shift things up from record to record will undoubtedly adapt better than newcomers who jumped on with 2013’s crowd pleasing AM. Those expecting hard-charging, sexy noir jams like “R U Mine?” and “Do I Wanna Know?” might be underwhelmed by the chilled-out retro vibes on display here, but that disappointment is strictly a first-listen problem. After a pass through and accepting that this album arrives largely without bangers, one can really begin to explore the familiar yet curious little world Turner and the boys have built.
It’s probably a good thing they didn’t release any singles for Tranquility Base, not only because very few of these tracks make as much sense out of context, but because this is a body of work best consumed in album form. This is an engrossing, full-bodied experience with production meant for good headphones and the solitude necessary to lose oneself in the sonics. It isn’t the tight narrative defined my muscular mythology some concept records aim for, but rather a general assemblage of moods, tones and motifs, centered around Turner’s chameleonic vocal performance and stray observations tethered to a lounge revival aesthetic that’s at once comforting and off-putting.
On “Star Treatment,” Turner opens the album by crooning “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” and it’s the most bluntly autobiographical supposition on the tracklist. From that naked confession, he almost immediately transforms into the album’s presumptive narrator (a future version of himself?) who lives in a resort hotel on the moon, lamenting bygone eras over his piano. His lyrics take turns alternating between laser-sharp clarity, hyper-specific claptrap and surprisingly cogent musings on politics, specifically on tracks “American Sports” and “Golden Trunks,” both able to look back on the present landscape with fictional hindsight from Turner’s science-fiction perch.
On the former, he sings “Can I please have my money back? My virtual reality mask is stuck on Parliament Brawl,” the most readily quotable piece of discourse on the album. But as a whole, this record is no polemic. Politics are on the menu, sure, but so is love, loss, nostalgia and other old Arctic Monkeys hang-ups shone through a lens of maturation and fame-borne ennui.
Each track functions on its own, but cumulatively, the album feels like one long song, a multi-part epic centered around Turner plucking the keys while absurdist imagery and haunting poetry seep from the stitching on his mocha-brown leisure suit. It’s an oddball patchwork quilt of Turner’s thoughts, welded to a new sound made piecemeal from his own solo home recordings and the ornamental orchestration of the rest of the band. Matt Helders’ drums offer rhythmic punctuation where necessary, and the rest of the band, alongside a whole host of session players, populates the periphery.
While it’s definitely a group effort, the album feels like a major coming-out party for Turner, who ascends to icon status by showing new depth and dimensions on this record. His writing feels vital and utterly idiosyncratic, both more fleshed-out at times and also even more sparse. Save for “She Looks Like Fun,” the album is completely dudless, with every track performing its necessary function, even if few stand out the way big singles on prior Monkeys albums have in the past.
“Four Out of Five,” a soaring, Bowie-influenced epic that doubles as something of a commercial for the titular hotel, is sure to be a crowd-pleaser, with its big hook and laugh-inducing detail work in the verses. Usually, a song about building a taqueria on the roof of a moonbase named after Neil Postman’s “information-action ratio” concept would be a little too try-hard to accept, but the tune is so charming and layered that it’s nearly impossible not to love. The same goes for some of the vocal acrobatics Turner executes on “One Point Perspective,” fully embracing the absentminded lounge singer act to its fullest potential.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a somber album, but one so typified by nods to science fiction and arthouse cinema that it feels like a welcome escape from the ills of today. As Turner croons on the aptly titled “Science Fiction,” he wants “to make a simple point about peace and love, but in a sexy way where it’s not obvious.” The album is more than that, clearly, but it’s refreshing for a band that could have erred on the side of commercial safety and released more of the same to wanton, rapturous applause to experiment so totally within this new space.