Certainly not the Arctic Monkeys of yore. Gone, for instance, is the powerful, soulful rock n’ roll of 2013’s AM, an album that made these longstanding British heavyweights global stars by nodding to everything from American hard rock to West Coast hip-hop. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino almost feels like a solo record from group leader Alex Turner, as the focus pertains to his lyrics—as well as his cheeky and stern delivery of them. The vibe is that of a 60s-inspired lounge, one no doubt frequented by Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, and one that de-emphasizes guitars to focus on retro keyboards.
Turner seems out to distort a sense of time and place. He sings, for instance, of a taqueria on the moon, and uses sci-fi motifs throughout. A nod, perhaps, to David Bowie’s obsession with space, but plenty of artists, from Sly Stone to Janelle Monáe, have utilized science fiction as a stand-in for modern-day metaphors. What’s different here is how relaxed and free-flowing the Arctic Monkeys seem. A chorus makes for a rare sight, as songs tend to blend into one other. If this music had a color, it would be something found within a lava lamp. Put it on, turn off the lights, and daydream.
One gets the sense Turner views the album as a soundtrack for a movie that doesn’t yet exist. Its title, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, refers to something akin to an Atlantic City in outer space. But as the music ultimately remains grounded in vintage, studio-created tones, Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth serves as a reference point. The latter’s downbeat sci-fi story would suit these songs, as would the film’s sometimes impressionistic nature.
The personal and global intermix throughout Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, making it never quite clear if Alex Turner is going deep into existentialism or portraying a character. “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” he sings to open the album on “Star Treatment,” in which a bachelor-pad piano marinates over a sputtering beat. With a slow, spoken-word beginning, the chorus-less song reads like a chapter from a Hubert Selby book, with stream-of-conscious references to pop-art, depression, and booze. By the time Turner answers his own “who you gonna call” question with “the martini police,” we don’t know if he’s talking about rock n’ roll, fame, or even imagining himself as some sort of over-the-hill lothario—a former James Bond-turned-deadbeat persona, if you will.
That’s probably no accident. Because even though “One Point Perspective,” with its urgently tapped keyboard, and “American Sports,” with its old-fashioned digital circuitry, up the pace, they still feel like songs that should be played in one of Bond’s lavish albeit immoral hangouts. These tunes offer plenty of moments to admire. “American Sports,” in particular, twists dreary, psychedelic guitar tones around a hopeful piano melody. The lyrics reference today’s overwhelming news cycle, as Turner alludes to one destructive headline after another while his voice becomes more obscured and distant.
No wonder Turner wants his band—and it should be noted that Jamie Cook’s guitar, Nick O’Malley’s bass, and Matt Helders’ drums function as shading instruments—to escape to another planet. The ace production, too, frames such accents around Tuner’s voice—extremely well recorded, present, and dead-centered in a mix that captures everything from the low end to twilight piano notes with balance and fullness. On Domino’s commendable analog pressing, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino comes across as if the band is floating in outer space. But even in orbit, Turner can’t seem to find relief from the daily grind. The only moments of peace seem found in whatever imaginary lounge Turner concocts for these songs to live.
The title track’s dusty rhythms and sexy bass notes can’t disguise the fact this resort on the moon isn’t any better than what’s down here on earth. If space is truly the final frontier, Turner seems to be saying, humans will just muck that up, too. Album centerpiece “Four Out of Five” features the most instantly recognizable chorus, thanks to a backing choir that adds a hint of gospel soul and comes with Turner’s most biting messages. “I put a taqueria on the roof it was well reviewed,” he sings of privileged earthlings gentrifying another planet. “Four stars out of five,” he adds, “and that’s unheard of.” The sarcasm doesn’t hit hard, however. Turner delivers it with the Las Vegas schmaltz of a Frank Sinatra impersonator.
Such satire, in fact, may be the record’s secret weapon. Any sense of concept-album pretension gets leveled with a sense of humor. “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip” mocks our swipe-right social media mentality for everything from love to politics, and does so with a waltzing backing choir and a lighthearted vintage Farfisa keyboard. “The exotic sounds of data storage,” Turner sings, “nothing like it first thing in the morning.”
Listeners may miss the band’s hooks and aggression, but the album feels brave. Not just for the risks it takes, but because the abstract structures and relaxed pace seem out to slow the world down even as Turner wonders if he’s still part of it. As the set nears its end, he starts to mock even himself and the album’s sci-fi underpinnings, ultimately revealing he’s no big-thinker. What he wants isn’t all that different from the rest of us: A sense of community and a getaway from everyday horrors.
“Baby, but why can’t we all just get along?,” he sings on “She Looks Like Fun.” Then, by flipping an old cliché, he offers a reminder that we’re not in this alone: “Dance as if somebody’swatching, because they are.” Maybe on the next album the Arctic Monkeys will be ready to let loose. But for now, the band appears content to wonder where that sense of friendly abandonment went.
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