Published May 09, 2018Five years after the hugely successful AM and the hiatus that followed, Sheffield, UK's Arctic Monkeys are serving up perhaps their least commercial record to date, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. It's a 40-minute venture themed around the idea of a futuristic holiday space base (that's a cardboard structure of imagined architecture on the cover), with singer/songwriter Alex Turner guiding you along in various roles: crooner, captain and crew.
Admittedly, this 11-song experience can feel rather overwhelming, and potentially not what one is expecting. It is theatrical. Songs trip and fall into memorable melodies, but there are no real commitments to a chorus. Most songs have non-endings, meandering their way until Turner has run out of things to say. It is an absolute shattering of what the Arctic Monkeys have been known to do — have their listeners fall hard and fast for their tunes, which have always been rather hard and fast themselves.
No single was released in anticipation of the record; nothing but a 42-second promotional teaser was revealed, and it features perhaps the only riff on the entire record that may register as "nostalgic Arctic Monkeys." This was a curious way to go about returning to fans after many years apart, but a smart one, too. Going into this cold is the way to go.
The curtain on this whole secretive ordeal is pulled back on "Star Treatment," when Turner hits you right off the bat with "I just wanted to be one of The Strokes / now look at the mess you made me make." With vocals dipping into Bowie territory, instrumental touches that sound like the score to a '60s TV ad, the song is a clear indicator that this will be very new indeed.
Gone are the punchy riffs, the shout-about choruses, the idealized song structure. Comparisons can be made to Pet Sounds or even Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson, and likely should — this is Turner and his thoughts, at the piano with no limitations, betraying all assumptions and expectations.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino feels like poetic social and fantasy-world commentary penned by Turner, who then fancied having a go at the piano and then brought the whole band in for good measure. Turner is clever and cheeky, as he's been known to be, switching up his singing style from deep to falsetto, and even testing out different tones as he embodies certain characters.
"The Ultracheese" has a vocal melody that recalls Patsy Cline's "Leavin' on Your Mind", and the instrumentation on "The World's First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip" wouldn't be too out of place on Pet Sounds with its reverb and sparse touches of bass and percussion. "Golden Trunks" has a rather unsettling feel, and "Four Out Of Five" may jive best with fans who love the band for their grooves and riffs.
If you're a long-time listener, or someone that was tuned in to AM, you might be prepared to change the dial. But before you write this off as exhausting or pretentious self-indulgence, give it a listen or two. Peruse the lyrics, dissect them and have a laugh. Commitment isn't as scary as you think. (Domino)