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REVIEW: Arctic Monkeys – ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ (Domino)

Listening to Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the massively anticipated sixth album by Arctic Monkeys, I’m reminded of the bar scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Alex Turner ranting in a lavish hotel lounge bar. Sometimes there’s people around, a wide cast of characters bringing the setting to life. Sometimes the perspective shifts and he’s by himself, talking to no one. Is the polite audience of bartender Lloyd really there? Is the writer with a slight leaning towards alcoholism going off the handle? Is the hotel actually haunted by the spirits of Native Americans? What if all of it is a coded message about the moon landing being staged? Someone call that gosh darn martini police to figure this out, this might be too clever for its own good.

It’s been over five years since the first singles for AM dropped and revived everyone’s hope in the relevance of rock music, selling well over 100,000 copies in its first week alone. In a genius move, AM merged blues, psychedelic rock, and rock’n’roll riffs and melodies with clear R&B vocal influences and hip-hop beats, making for tunes that spread like wildfire across social media platforms by their sheer sleazy audacity and moody stylistic choices, that spawned a new era of indie kids mawkishly reminiscing about the ‘50s they never lived through. It was a nearly tangible movement with a singular perfectly moody album as its manifesto, and living through it whilst in high school was both extremely fitting and annoying, as you literally could not get away from it even if you tried.

That said, after the incredible success of AM, the anticipation for a new album was palpable, and only amplified by the fact that Arctic Monkeys chose to withhold any singles prior to the release date of the entire thing. We got pictures from a band photoshoot though, with the gang looking typically broody and seemingly permanently aware of their impending council tax payments. For anyone remotely aware of how important the fashion choices were to the aesthetic and overall image of AM, the fact that Turner in five years went from looking like Elvis updated for the disenfranchised R&B generation, to post-LSD John Lennon minus the Potter glasses raised some red flags.

READ MORE: Alex Turner’s albums, ranked From Worst To Best

And then the album dropped. And it was forty-something minutes of lounge music. And people scattered for their lyric booklets to look for three meta-layers of explanation.

So apparently, Turner wrote the entirety of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino in Los Angeles, by himself, on an upright piano, in a makeshift studio in his spare room. He also read a lot of science fiction and watched a bunch of Italian movies in his spare time. Oh, and he also read Infinite Jest, which, if you’ve read Infinite Jest, explains way too much. Needless to say, the album is definitely lyrically heavy, with Turner pulling out some of the most interesting, witty, and completely out of left-field lines he has ever penned. It is also pretty much tuneless, and actively resists careless enjoyable consumption. In short, it’s about as far from AM as Arctic Monkeys could have gone without picking up fiddles.

The album opens up with ‘Star Treatment’, the opening line of which is “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes / Now look at the mess you made me make”, just to make absolutely sure that everyone gets that the album is going to have a meta-level of Alex Turner writing songs about the experience of being Alex Turner. Really, it’s less of a song and more Turner reciting spoken-word over music made for a whiskey drinking binge (in space).

That’s not to necessarily demean Turner’s spoken word ad-libs. In between already insightful stanzas like “Everybody’s on a barge / Floating down the endless stream of great TV / 1984, 2019” crops up a typical Turner™ infinitely quotable one-liners like “So who you gonna call? The martini police?”, which are superbly evocative in their simplicity and accompanied by what might almost be categorised as a musical change.

On ‘American Sports’, Arctic Monkeys are throwing their hat into the ring for the battle of who hates technology more. To a comparatively intense, for this album anyway, piano line and a synthesizer straight out of the ‘Castlevania’ games soundtrack, Turner quips “My virtual reality mask is stuck on ‘Parliament Brawl’ / Emergency battery pack, just in time for my weekly chat / With God on video call”. Insidiously, you can almost hear a good tune in there, frustratingly try to grasp onto it through the ‘lounge’ production that permeates the entire album. The drums are reverbed to the point where they feel like someone’s playing them in the next room, the piano has all of its low frequencies cut out, just in case someone dare try vibe to it, and Turner’s vocals are put through at least five different filters to evoke that empty dive bar (in space) atmosphere.

The title track finally describes the titular place of this exercise in extended metaphor. The hotel and casino is a destination for humanity’s collective exodus, which Turner, again, interestingly conjures with the chorus “Good afternoon / Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino / Mark speaking / Please, tell me, how may I direct your call?”. It is named, of course, after the famous site of the moon landing. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, but now there’s a hotel and casino there and people go there to be decadent and seedy and kiss each other under “the moon’s side boob”. So we have what is possibly the weirdest setting for an Arctic Monkeys album, that’s clearly commentary on technology, and on the decadent nature of humanity, but also on the nature of stardom and how Turner in particular dealt with massive success. The think piece / hot take possibilities are endless. Provided you were very much in the mood for some depressing excessive lounge bar (in space) music and got this far into the album.

‘Four Out Of Five’ is possibly the closest thing to a genuine tune that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino has going for it. It continues setting the scene of the hotel, with a wink and a nod. “Cute new places keep on popping up / Since the exodus, it’s all getting gentrified / I put a taqueria on the roof, it was well reviewed / Four stars out of five / And that’s unheard of”. Very witty. And now it’s time to proper talk about the whole sci-fi setting of the album.

Yes, there’s a hotel and casino on Tranquility Base. People are ditching Planet Earth to go there. Everyone’s having fun and revelling in their debauchery. There’s a taqueria there on the roof, and it’s getting rave reviews, you guys. Everyone can go eat their tacos on the moon and gamble, it’s the American Dream. Genuinely, this concept sounds like a Cards Against Humanity generated statement, and it gets by on the audience’s willingness to accept nearly embarrassing-sounding ideas for their complete audaciousness.

That, narrative-wise, would make Turner and co. the lounge bar band for the set-up place of action, hence, the flat-line tuneless lounge production of the whole album would work, at least conceptually. However, with the album including as many meta narratives as it does, and with the lyrical perspective always shifting between the observer / lounge band, the hotel receptionist / owner, a visitor of said hotel, and Turner himself talking about his experience about being the frontman of a massive rock band in the 21st century, that he veils only very thinly, we’re left to wonder why is the music so tiringly changeless.

There’s narrative dissonance in songs like ‘Golden Trunks’, between Turner suddenly deciding that he wants to comment on modern political figures in disguise as a love song (because doing it in a “not obvious” way makes it sexy) from the stand-point of no one in particular, and the instrumental and production blending in to one conglomerate flat-line of lounge music. The album isn’t as consistent in its narration as it is in its vague sci-fi-ness, which begs the question of whether there was any real reason to make the songs as indistinguishable from one another as they are.

‘Science Fiction’ is where Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino reaches its peak meta-value, via a song about writing a song. Turner “tries to write songs that make someone blush but fears that they might end up too clever for their own good”. Turner “wants to make a simple point about peace and love, but in a sexy way where it’s not obvious”. Turner wrote a song called ‘The Ultracheese’. Turner “lost his train of thought” on ‘One Point Perspective’.

READ MORE: Arctic Monkeys // ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ at 10 years old

Arctic Monkeys have released an album that features a taqueria in space, but also political commentary but also meta-textual narratives about the cultural place that the band occupies. It features Orwellian dystopian ideas that only Turner could possibly regurgitate with the amusing bravado that he does. It features bizarre and interesting quotable content for those martini-fuelled late night discussions about that one picture where Mark Zuckerberg walks amongst an audience of people with VR headsets. It’s also 40 minutes of lounge music for some misdirected idea of tonal congruence. The world has gone mad. (6/10) (Ellie Wolf)

Listen to Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by Arctic Monkeys here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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