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Review of Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

Samuel Levy, Guest Writer

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Halfway through my first listen of the Arctic Monkey’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, I realized that the world is currently in a pretty strange place. A reality TV star is president, the Washington Capitals have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals and the Arctic Monkeys have recorded and released a song titled “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip.” If this feels like a mouthful to read, just imagine frontman Alex Turner actually trying to croon the line behind the backdrop of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. This is the sixth project from the Sheffield, UK group, and the first with lead singer Alex Turner producing. Tranquility Base is also the follow up to 2013’s AM, the album that finally propelled the group to stardom in the United States and defined their role as icons of 2000’s rock. They had achieved instant success overseas, however, with their 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which holds the record for the fastest selling debut album in UK history.

With each project since, the band has been famous for pushing the boundaries of their sound, most notably in 2009 with their third album, Humbug. That album marked a notable shift from their original fast-and-loud style that they had perfected on their first two releases to a more cryptic and brooding sound. On AM, the band expanded on what they had been experimenting with on 2011’s Suck it and See, which featured more slicked-back, stadium-sized anthems. AM was also the band’s first real attempt at writing immediately catchy, swaggering pop-rock hits, and they succeeded. Along with earning the band countless new fans, AM garnered worldwide acclaim and remains the best-selling vinyl record of the millenium.

With that said, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is without a doubt the biggest leap in style that the band has ever attempted. You don’t have to venture past the opening track, “Star Treatment”, to tell that the album already features some of the most complex music the band has ever attempted in terms of instrumentation, vocal pattern, and tempo structure. The band almost completely abandons the guitars and drums of previous albums in exchange for spaced-out synthesizers and pianos. The shift towards a piano as a centerpiece is rather abrupt, as keyboards have only been featured on handful of tracks in their entire discography.  Frontman Alex Turner reportedly received his Steinway Vanguard as a birthday present, and even namedrops his instrument on the album’s closing track.

Throughout Tranquility Base, he tries out a variety of ways to mesh the darker piano with the toned-back guitar chords and bass lines. Light, twinkling notes are used to open multiple tracks, sounding their best on “One Point Perspective,” though eventually getting stale by the tracks towards the end of the album. Turner uses more eerie synths to add the obscurity of “Science Fiction,” then darkening them to match the mystery of the album’s title track. However, the best and most satisfying use of piano comes on the band’s closer, “The Ultracheese.” The added depth provided by the sweeping chords provides a clarity that  sets it apart from many of the other tracks on the album. It’s melancholic swoon creates a callback to a similar, yet equally captivating, track from AM, “No. 1 Party Anthem”.

Tranquility Base also gives off significant influences of somber jazz that creates the feeling of taking up residence in a 70’s-era hotel orbiting the moon. When the guitars are present, they’re usually fuzzed out to the point of sounding more like distant horns. For the majority of the album, however, they’re not much of a factor, often limited to short, plucked riffs layered behind the piano. Some of the brightest spots on the album occur where guitarist Jamie Cook is allowed to rattle off scorching solos reminiscent of earlier material from The Strokes. Nick O’Malley’s bass lines also provide for some of the more catchy parts of the album, often adding some much needed, looseness to the tracks that struggle to find a sustainable melody. The biggest disappointment of Tranquility Base is its lack of memorable drum parts from Matt Helders. On earlier albums, his manic drumming had been one of the key characteristics in building up the sheer energy of the Arctic Monkeys. Even on AM, where he was mostly relegated to pounding backbeats and a few short fills, you were still able to pinpoint him as a core element of the album’s sound. With the exception of his backing vocals and driving pace on the title track, it’s as if he’s not even there.

Throughout each of their albums, even when the Arctic Monkeys attempted to re-invent their sound, one constant presence had been Alex Turner’s incise, often arrogant, and accent-twinged vocals. His higher-pitched yelps of earlier records have gradually morphed into a sort of deeper croon that Turner has come to rely on for albums like AM. Tranquility Base proves to be similar, although he does attempt a falsetto on a few of the choruses, usually with mixed results. When he’s not singing about finding love in the cocktail bars of outer space, Turner draws lyrical inspiration from the modern societal struggles. Social commentary is nothing new from the Arctic Monkeys. Their 2006 and 2007 albums were filled with sarcastic quips of finding your soulmate in the chaos of a nightclub and other concerns of the generation of twenty-somethings like themselves.

Even though Turner is only 32, it seems he’s already ascended to the “old man yells at cloud” status of artists like Father John Misty. On Tranquility Base, Turner decides to take aim at issues like the current administration or our increasing reliance on technology. The album turns surprisingly political with lines like, “The leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks.” The futuristic feel of the album is also accentuated by lines in which Turner references technological advancements like “My virtual reality mask is stuck on ‘Parliament Brawl,’ Emergency battery pack just in time for my weekly chat with God on videocall.” He even takes on the entire culture of reviewing sites like Yelp with the track “Four out of Five.” The song features an oddly specific description of Turner opening up a taqueria near the supposedly gentrified Clavius crater on the moon’s surface. He goes on to exalt in his business venture receiving four stars out of five, which Turner believes is “unheard of”. The track even drifts into “Hotel California” territory as various harmonies begin to repeatedly invite you to “Take it easy for a little while, Come and stay with us, It’s such an easy flight.” On the track “Science Fiction,” Turner sings the painfully ironic line, “I tried to write a song to make you blush, But I’ve a feeling that the whole thing may well just end up too clever for its own good.” The price that Turner ends up paying for using such detailed lyrics is that some sections end up sounding as if he’s trying to fit too many words into a particular line. Although the slow romp of “Batphone” showcases Turner’s remarkable range, by the end of the track his lyrics become so off-melody that they begin to sound like spoken word poetry.

Much like the lyrics, the underlying melody of many tracks on Tranquility Base becomes muddled as each section of the band becomes piled on top of each other. This album is a clear departure from AM , although leaps and bounds more so than in previous alterations from other transitions in sound. With this in mind, the decision of the band not to release any singles for the album seems to make just a little more sense. Already, the album has caused such a stir that some fans are sarcastically claiming the project was created simply to cast off the fans who had latched on to the band only after hearing AM and supposedly don’t appreciate the rest of the band’s catalogue. Tranquility Base can easily be brushed off as the band simply experimenting with a newer sound, though that really is no excuse for tracks like “American Sports” and “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip” that just sound downright bad. Part of this difference can be seen with many of the tracks requiring a deeper amount of attention, compared to their previous hits consisting of organized noise and energy. After a five year hiatus, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino proves that there is no going back to the gritty 2006 scenes of working-class England made famous by earlier albums, or even back to their swaggering sweet-spot found on AM.  

 

Best Tracks:

One Point Perspective

Four out of Five

The Ultracheese

 

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