Album Review: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by Arctic Monkeys
“I just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” opens Arctic Monkeys’ newest album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. It’s a rare moment of transparency on the album, a line that tells you what it is and what it means, preceding eleven tracks that consist mostly of dense allegory and allusion. Arctic Monkeys have released what I like to call their “30s album.” Few bands remain in the zeitgeist long enough to go from gruff twenty-somethings to more polished versions of their adult selves, and it’s always interesting to see how a band’s music matures with its members.
In Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Arctic Monkeys take on the role of a resident band in the titular resort’s cabaret. It is on the moon. The moon is being gentrified. The hotel and casino are struggling to pay the mortgage. If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is: a college course could be dedicated to parsing this dense album. Listeners looking for something easy, breezy, and pleasing may be turned off, but Tranquility Base rewards careful and repeated run-throughs.
A few weeks ago, the band’s lyricist and lead singer Alex Turner spoke with Pitchfork and took them through each track one by one. He, obviously, does much more justice in explaining the songs than I ever could. If you have an hour or two to spare, it’s fun to listen through the album alongside Turner’s explanations.
Arctic Monkeys came on the scene as the new cool kids on the block: English, barely twenty, with cigarettes dangling out from unshaven jaws. They were edgy and icy; every thirteen-year-old boy with a guitar wanted to be them. Gone now are those effortlessly hip rockers; the Arctic Monkeys have returned as a self-aware, highly calculated project among a group of four men who grapple with different fears than they did a decade ago.
Tranquility Base is ambient, sonorous, and at times eerie and atonal. It’s a far cry from their 2006 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Whatever’s bumpy garage rock feels like it came from an entirely different band. It warrants divorcing yourself of any preconceived ideas of what Arctic Monkeys sound like. The first track, “Star Treatment,” is a six-minute sample platter of what’s to follow, and it exemplifies the album’s best qualities. It leans into the concept and embraces its self-referential nature. Some of the songs, such as my personal favorite, “Four Out of Five,” really nail the spacey ethereality that they’ve been going for, and more than a few of the tracks are really just nice to listen to from an aural standpoint.
The album is not successful in its entirety; some tunes, unfortunately, do fall flat. But taken holistically, listening to Tranquility Base is a unique experience. And isn’t that, after all, the point of a concept album? I think of Coldplay’s post-apocalyptic Mylo Xyloto as an apt comparison here. Both work best as an album, with the wholes being much greater than the sums of their parts. So, while any given track from Tranquility Base might feel a little wonky, the project as a whole is quite (dare I say?) stellar.