Music

Arctic Monkeys Make a Brilliant Shift of Their Sound on 'Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino'

Photo: Zachary Michael / Courtesy of Domino Records

Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is an intriguing musical shift from Arctic Monkeys' wildly popular and massively dominating AM, but rooted in their style and progressive growth as musicians and performers.

Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino
Arctic Monkeys

Domino

11 May 2018

A lot will be written about the stylistic turn the Arctic Monkeys sixth album Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino takes from the band's 2013 chart-topper AM. If there is a "turn" in the new record, it's relevant and retains the core direction and musicianship of Arctic Monkeys and leader singer/songwriter Alex Turner. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is a loose concept record structured around driving piano, subdued guitar, determinate drums and percussion, and a crooning set of lounge vocals by Turner. The atmosphere in the album sonically visualizes a futuristic moon base rooted in the sensibilities of modern popular culture and focus on retro elements of film and literature. Turner confronts the impact on life and society by technology, social media, religion, and consumerism. So, yeah: a concept album, of sorts. Roll with it, or don't. Either way, it's still Arctic Monkeys, and this is a perfect direction after a five-year gap and five successful and progressive preceding records since 2006.

Turner initiated work on the album after receiving a piano for his 30th birthday and recorded a set of demos in his Los Angeles home around the concept of a moon base bar. Even with the input and solid performances by guitarist Jamie Cook, bassist Nick O'Malley, and drummer Matt Helders, the album consists of a stronger Turner presence than the band's previous album. This aspect is the trajectory most apparent in terms of direction from the band's first five records in comparison: Turner's presence has grown extensively, though often complimented by noticeable backing vocals by Helders, and defining guitar and bass work overall.

On (or at?) Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, the concept forces sparks of piano and drums to overshadow lightened guitar riffs and solos. The new direction is immediately present. Opener "Star Treatment" is piano driven and allusion heavy, ranging from Turner crooning about living too hard in the 1970s (he wasn't born yet), and having never seen Blade Runner. It's a stark opener, reflective of celebrity status and potentially interpreted as a comment on expectations placed on Turner and Arctic Monkeys. The music sits lower in the mix generally and complements Turner's lyrics, a quality aurally dominant between the verses and choruses of second track "One Point Perspective". Outstanding guitar work and sharp drumming in this track deepen the musical contributions from Turner's allusions in the opener.

Any notion that the piano dominates the album to set the concept or generate an offsetting direction among fans is frankly not present with tracks like "American Sports" or "Golden Trunk". These tracks sandwich the title track and sound immediately like a natural continuation of threads introduced in previous records – particularly AM, but additionally on Suck It and See and Humbug. The title track highlights the concept (obviously), featuring a front desk operator named Mark that directs patrons toward the lounge and the act at the center of the titular hotel and casino. Here, again, are lyrics read easily as a commentary on expectations for the band to fulfill precisely as wished by listeners.

Tracks in the latter half of the record achieve similar comparisons to previous records, with "Science Fiction" notably recalling Humbug. In "Science Fiction", Turner indicates the influence of literature and themes such as science fiction on his writing. Critiquing modern society through the lens of a future colony, "I want to make a simple point about peace and love / But in a sexy way where it's not obvious." On "She Looks Like Fun", the guitar dominates for the only occasion on the record, even while complemented by piano and keyboard. It's an immensely dark track though, articulating the unrelenting social media dominance and anxieties we individually face in modern existence. "Finally, I can share with you through cloudy skies / Every whimsical thought that enters my mind." The song ultimately rejects that dominance, albeit while lamenting a lack of place in that environment. "Finally, there's a place where you can wag your tongue / Baby, but why can't we all just get along?"

First single "Four out of Five" features swagger and dynamism core to the direction of the album. The track carries an immediate callback to AM, but uses 1970s glam rock influences further to capture a slowed mood and ridicule of modern advertising. In an interview, Turner noted the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman as influential on this track, where entertainment and overindulgence define the hotel at the center of the concept as a quality destination with a solid reputation and strong rating; the implication becoming you should check it out or at least its lounge.

The closing track singularly slows the album to a meaningful crawl before ending the album somewhat fittingly abruptly. "The Ultracheese" reviews Turner's personal life dejectedly, honing isolation embodied by stardom and popular rock musician status. The track's slow and delicate cadence pulls the mood and themes across Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino into complete revelation: from the "Star Treatment" enjoyed to the status embodied by a life in a moon hotel (or in America seems the most obvious connotation by this comparison), everything is isolating due to fame and celebrity. Where do you go to reflect on your experiences when the experiences that got you to this point are no longer available and impossible to recreate as age progresses and youth slips into the past.

Overall, the album succeeds at recreating the sonic experimentations of the 1960s and 1970s pop musicians, with modern sensibilities and cultural dynamics added to commentary and thematic elements. Influences from Serge Gainsbourg and Francois de Roubaix further extend the turn to be noted from the band's previous records. "I've been driving 'round listening to the score" is a relevant counterpoint to the album's opening lyrics in "Star Treatment": "I just wanted to be one of the Strokes." Two alternatively specific influences for Arctic Monkeys career, and dynamic components that offer interpretations for the band's career at a point where artistry and experimentation can hold the core of the record rather than lightly nudge the direction and style of successive albums. The sharp turn of Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is the unexpectedness of these elements as strong and focused, rather than experiments that falter. The first listen may be surprising, but repeated listens illuminate that Arctic Monkeys remain progressive and energetic even when style and mood shift dramatically.

8/10
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