Imagine, if you will, that you’ve found yourself stumbling upon the scene of your average hotel bar. The guests present reflect the decor, in that they all lie somewhere on the spectrum of glamorous to garish; there’s a sedated lounge act toeing the line between “embarrassing dad at karaoke,” and “swaggering 70s pop flop.” Now, transport the entire image to the surface of the moon.
This is the setting the Arctic Monkeys invite listeners to on their sixth LP Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (2018), the long-awaited follow up to the band’s 2013 smash hit AM. Longtime listeners and casual fans alike have waited five years for the next project from the British four-piece that once championed themselves as proof that “[rock and roll] will never die.” The product of this hiatus—the longest in their fifteen year history—is an ambitious shift in musical direction, one that has been polarizing to the band’s fanbase.
One thing that is immediately clear is that this record wears its influences proudly on its sleeve—the album’s titular track sounds as unmistakably like David Bowie as a non-Bowie artist can—not unlike the chief creative force behind the album, the band’s frontman Alex Turner. It is Turner’s nearly complete creative control of the record that has left some fans feeling burned, branding the record a “Turner solo album.” This criticism is valid, especially when looking at the record’s personnel listings, where Turner’s musical credits often creep up to eight instrumental and/or vocal contributions to any given song. This cohesive creative vision was birthed from Turner writing the majority of the album in seclusion, behind the wheel of a new addition to his musical utility belt: a Steinway Vertegrand upright piano. The reliance on the piano on this album is not only noticeable from the its first seconds, but is a refreshing breath of new life for the Monkeys’ sound (a sentiment Turner would agree with, being drawn to the piano as a consequence of guitars “not giving him ideas anymore.”) Instead of the same nearly tired structures of chugging guitar songs, there is a more bass heavy, hip-swinging groove (courtesy of the band’s Nick O’Malley) that is almost uniform throughout the record, colored as well by organs, keyboards, synthesizers, and more. This isn’t to imply that there is no guitar work whatsoever on the album, quite the contrary; fuzzy guitar leads underscore much of the album, and in the Pet Sounds-esque soundscapes crafted on the album, twinkly and twangy guitar strums occasionally cut through all of the noise. However, this record is still a far cry from the band’s classic sound (one that has, mind you, changed with every consecutive album, but never so drastically as on Tranquility Base…)
While some fans may find the musical shift jarring, especially the lack of typical, high-energy Monkeys songs with Matt Helders’ vicious drums behind them, the band successfully mines everything they can from the groovy, space-age sound they’re striving for. This direction highlights Turner’s unique style of lyricism, which is fully unshackled on this record thanks to the freedom that an almost-concept-album affords; as Caleb Byrne (11), a casual listener, says, “They kinda opened up the door to sci-fi, got really into it, and couldn’t get back out.” Some lyrical highlights involve, “taquerias on the moon,” and imploring a lover to, “kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob.” Despite this previously unseen sense of absurd surrealism in the lyrics, Turner arms himself with metaphors and analogies to take on the rise of social media, human greed and imperfection, and even recent American politics (from “Golden Trunks”: “The leader of the free world/Reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks.”) Some of these attempts at social critique fall short in comparison to artists who have recently made it a habit to challenge the system, but Turner’s lyrical concepts are strong enough—and his phrasing often witty enough—to encourage one to look past the flaws. As per usual, Turner’s lyrics are quite wordy and effortfully verbose, making for a record with sometimes frustratingly confusing rhythms and vocal arrangements. On top of the kooky vocal rhythms, Turner pushes himself to different realms of vocal performance than ever before, leaning into crooning falsettos and adopting a persona somewhere between a half-drunk lounge singer and, once again, a theatrical rockstar caricature a la David Bowie. This vocal style pairs well with the themes of the album and the lyrical conceits surrounding glamorous human greed in space, with Jillian Dixon (10) saying that, “As the songs went on, it felt spacier and floatier, not only in the music, but in his [Turner’s] voice. It’s like he just woke up and is singing, which is really cool.” In the end, it’s a direction that serves the band, and diving headfirst into this new direction without hesitation makes for a surprising listening experience, but overall pays off.
Reactions to the record have been mixed, as at first listen it can be quite a confusing reward for five years of anticipation.” When I listen to new music for the first time, I usually either love it or hate it,” says Aubrey King (10), a casual fan of the band’s output up to this point. “But with this album, it’s one of the first things that, on first listen, I’ve just liked.” To some, the record has proven to be a grower rather than something that hooks you in immediately. Many who have taken to social media platforms to discuss the album profess an intense hatred of the record upon first listen, but have since changed their tune in coming to appreciate it as a different direction for the group. “They seem to be polishing themselves off more and more,” says Byrne. “They’ve gone from what might be the soundtrack to life in an extremely gross UK apartment complex to…well, the moon! That’s about as far as you can go.” There are engaging songs all throughout, even some that could have a promising future as sing-along singles at live shows (“Their signature thing is they never sing lyrics when you think they should be singing lyrics,” says Byrne, “which makes me mad, but I won’t stop listening”), but nothing to attract new audiences like “Do I Wanna Know?” and other hits from the AM era. Nevertheless, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a mature and intriguing step forward for the band that fancy themselves as keeping rock and roll alive—and if this is the next life the genre is destined for, the future looks promising.