Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is the sixth studio album from indie rock superstars, Arctic Monkeys, and it is also one of their more polarizing releases to date. Front-man Alex Turner recorded most of the demos for this album at his Los Angeles home, and composed the majority of the songs on a piano, rather than a guitar. This curious approach to recording a highly anticipated follow-up to a successful record in AM, followed by a lengthy hiatus, just added to the mystery of the album as a whole. Additionally, the unique promotional approach of keeping the entire record under “lock and key” by not pre-releasing any songs prior to the street date only helped with challenging listeners to absorb the entire album, rather than a couple of singles taken out of context.
The general themes found throughout this album are of science fiction, self-reflection, politics, religion, and even technology itself. The sound that Arctic Monkeys have achieved here can be best described as modern “lounge pop,” reminiscent of stylistic artists such as Father John Misty and David Bowie. Even though the majority of these songs were written and composed by Alex Turner himself, and even though it was initially suggested by his bandmates he self-release the album under his own name — due the complexity of how to add the other instrumental parts around the piano/vocals — this is still an Arctic Monkeys album. The rest of the band has enhanced the piano-driven direction of this record by creating an album worthy of your full and undivided attention.
The record was produced by longtime Arctic Monkeys’ collaborator James Ford, as well as by Turner. To the casual listener, this record may seem like more of a continuation of the sound Turner was going for on his side-project, The Last Shadow Puppets, however there are still a lot of nuances that Arctic Monkeys have used on this LP to make it their own. For example, the restraint shown on the stylized beats by drummer Matt Helders assists with modernizing the jazz-based compositions found here. Additionally, it seems like guitarist Jamie Cook and bassist Nick O’Malley pick their spots strategically to still make their mark on this album. This record does not rock in a style of their previous guitar-driven records, but rather broods.
The album opener, “Star Treatment,” finds Turner admitting on the very first lyric that: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make,” referencing his early ambitions to make his mark on the rock scene. The opening track is filled with tons of self-reflection, over a jazzy beat, and lounge themes that sets the tone for what the listener will experience on this album. The second track “One Point Perspective” has a simplistic, near hip-hop beat, with a repetitious piano backing, only to be enhanced by a stellar guitar solo by Cook that demands to show that this is still a full-band effort. The track also features some well-placed synths to modernize the jazz-lounge piano that is found more often than not as you navigate through the album.
“American Sports,” and the title track, are the two most memorable songs found on this LP and showcase the sound that the band was going for with this effort. The science fiction themes found on these two tracks dominate the lyrical content of the songs, with Turner crooning “So when you gaze at planet Earth from outer space/does it wipe that stupid look off of your face” exuded with the confidence of fellow ambitious artist, and star-man, David Bowie.
Later tracks such as “Four Out of Five” pick up the pace only slightly, yet rock with a glam type of flavor that crescendos in each of the choruses. Backing vocals from Turner’s band members make this track in particular stand out amongst the rest, and are a welcome change to the formula shown on the earlier songs. It was almost as if Arctic Monkeys were trapped in this futuristic hotel that they reference, listening only to old school artists such as Pink Floyd, Queen, and the Beach Boys, to target the direction they took on this effort.
Curious song titles such as “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip,” “Batphone,” and “The Ultracheese” may turn off the interest of casual fans of the band. However, they would be missing out on the journey that Arctic Monkeys have taken us on. That journey is into a jazz lounge that resides in a hotel/casino, that has been ripped from the 1960’s, with a band from the present challenging us to absorb all the nuances of their sound and “embrace the strange.”
Admittedly, this is not the album I was expecting to hear from the Arctic Monkeys after such a lengthy hiatus, but it’s an album that I’m glad I was able to experience. A lot of fans may hate the direction that they have gone on this latest chapter of their story, but I would hardly call their departure from guitar-driven compositions a “disappointment.” Instead, think of this album as more of a place to go when you need a chance to challenge yourself from your normal listening rotations, and shut yourself off from the noise that is present in today’s society. One thing is for sure, the stay in the Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino will not be short.