2018 seems to be the year for established rock acts to take bizarre left turns. First, Jack White released the frustrating but fitfully fun Boarding House Reach. Now, the Arctic Monkeys take their turn to befuddle the main steam with their latest offering Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Five years after the release of their most successful record AM (certified platinum) the Arctic Monkeys have returned with an album that is both a completely unforeseeable departure and totally on brand.
Since their inception, the Arctic Monkeys have been obsessed with subverting their image. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was the title of their debut, and has served as a lingering ethos for a band that has consistently reinvented its sound between albums. So what kind of record do you make when people say that you are the best selling act in alternative rock? An audacious concept album about a resort and casino on the moon, apparently.
The closest point of comparison for Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino in the band’s previous work is 2009’s dour Humbug, but really, the band is treading new ground sonicly. While they previously thrived on fast and fuzzy guitar rock, TBHAC finds the band playing around with spacey synths, harpsichords, and jazz drumming. The overall impression is of mod retro futurism. Picture Mad Men, but set on the moon and directed by Stanley Kubrick and you’re halfway there.
Surprisingly, this all works fairly well for a band who came up on dance punk. In the very least the album never sounds bad, with the sheer coolness of the production meshing nicely with Alex Turner’s lounge singer croon. What doesn’t work as well, however, was the decision to completely forgo hooks, melodies, and other basics of song structure. Without the benefit of anything to catch your ear the songs on the album become a jazz slurry, with nothing to separate one track from another other than general lyrical themes and witty one-liners.
Although, to the album’s credit, the lyrics are kind of the point. On TBHAC Alex Turner channels his noted ability for writing snotty wittisms into a never ending stream of free association, the lyrical equivalent of a fire hose set to full blast and left unattended . There’s plenty of social critique to be found if one has the time to parse through the bullshit, but Turner is just as interested in clever non-sequiturs as he is in exploring the concept of the album. “Bear with me man, I’ve lost my train of thought” he sings on “One Point Perspective” and we know what to expect from the rest of the album.
Even if none of the songs on Tranquility Base are particularly memorable, the album as a whole is unique enough to stand out. After all, how often does the largest band in the world release an album on which the lead singer rambles about the taqueria on the roof of his moon hotel and the mostly positive reviews it has received (intermixed with some real insights about gentrification). In fact, the song on which he does this, “Four Out of Five,” is the song that works best on its own and should be anyone’s starting point in this new and deeply strange era of Arctic Monkeys.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is an album best appreciated either in the background while doing something else or while pouring intensely over the lyrics, with absolutely no middle ground. In the very least the Arctic Monkeys have crafted something amusing, and will definitely put a stop to any accusations of selling out that started cropping up around their last two albums. Unfortunately, the album doesn’t leave us with anything else to remember it fondly by other than its intentions, some neat sounds, and Alex Turner exclaiming “what do you mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?” And really, that just isn’t enough.
For fans of: Father John Misty, Alt-J, subverting your subversions
Our take: A deeply weird concept album that works better as a concept than an album.