review: Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’ is an unexpected twist
Arctic Monkeys have made a drastic, unexpected change for the second time in their career. The first time was 2009's Humbug, when they graduated from their scruffy garage rock debut and its faster, shorter followup to slowed-down, psychedelic desert rock with hints of Black Sabbath and Queens of the Stone Age, and they got the singer of the latter band to co-produce. Humbug was a turn-off for some, but Arctic Monkeys stuck to their guns and further honed that sludgy sound on parts of 2011's ballad-heavy Suck It and See (namely, "Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair," but also a few other moments) before figuring out a way to meld it with hip hop beats and R&B falsettos on 2013's AM. AM is sort of the ultimate modern rock record, with the riffs and swagger of rock's '70s era and still enough in common with Drake. It turned them into stars, and five years later, I have no hesitation saying it surpasses Arctic Monkeys' classic debut as their best album yet. It may have taken a while, but Arctic Monkeys eventually silenced the critics of their first direction change, so if at first you're wary of the new sound of Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, it might be worth giving it a few extra chances.
Even more so than Suck It And See, Tranquility is a ballads album. The only song that even kinda rocks is "Four Out of Five," which sort of sounds like "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High"'s quieter older brother, and even that song can pass as a ballad compared to what Arctic Monkeys are capable of. This can be kinda disappointing, especially considering Arctic Monkeys are one of the very few mainstream modern rock bands that actually get heavy and do so tastefully. The success of AM challenged anyone who said "guitar bands don't sell anymore," so it might bum out guitar-rock true believers that the main instrument on Tranquility isn't a guitar at all; it's a piano. Alex Turner was gifted with a Steinway Vertegrand in early 2016, and he spent the next couple years learning how to really play the thing and writing much of the new album on it (he gives his new toy a shoutout on the album's closing song). Sometimes, Tranquility sounds more like an Alex Turner solo album than an Arctic Monkeys album. (Probably worth noting that this is the first Arctic Monkeys album that Alex co-produced, along with longtime collaborator James Ford.) The other members' personalities aren't felt as strongly on this one, and that's especially true of Matt Helders, who's one of the best drummers in mainstream rock but -- other than during the chorus of "She Looks Like Fun" -- is mostly holding back on this album.
A lot of the traits that have come to define Arctic Monkeys and make them so special are absent on Tranquility, but to the band's credit, it's been five years since a milestone album -- they kind of had to shake things up. It'd be boring to wait this long just to hear them repeat themselves, and of all the things Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino might be, it's definitely not boring. It's over the top in ways the band has never been before ("I just wanted to be one of The Strokes / Now look at the mess you made me make," Alex begins, on the stream-of-consciousness, self-aware leaning self-obsessed album opener "Star Treatment"), and it's got some musical influences you probably never thought you'd hear on an Arctic Monkeys album, like Pet Sounds. You can hear Brian Wilson's masterpiece in Tranquility's reverby, Wrecking Crew-style percussion ("Star Treatment"), lightly bouncy pianos ("One Point Perspective") and its many melodic basslines.
Other reference points for Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino include late '50s ballroom ballads, showtunes, the whimsical side of late '60s Beatles, and the dark, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds-inspired sense of cool that they've been honing for a while. The album is bookended by its two most traditional sounding ballads, but in between in gets weird. The Pet Sounds-y percussion, piano, and basslines all come together on "The World's First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip," which, with its dash of circus music, is basically "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Brian Wilson." The totally out-there "She Looks Like Fun" might be exactly what it would sound like if Nick Cave mashed up "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "Magical Mystery Tour." The title track seems simple and subdued at first, but reveals itself to be a clash of funky, modern R&B, '60s rock organs, and psychedelic sound effects. "Science Fiction" sounds like it might've fit in an old black and white horror film, and it's the most evil-sounding song that Arctic Monkeys have written since "Pretty Visitors."
Lyrically, Alex Turner revisits a few of his usual themes (love, lust, nightlife), but on Tranquility he's often singing about something he hasn't dedicated this much wax to before: modern technology. He sings of "the exotic sound of data storage" on "The World's First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip" and "the rise of the machines" on "Science Fiction." He asks "Have I told you all about the time that I got sucked into a hole through a hand held device?" on "Batphone" and divulges "technological advances really bloody get me in the mood" on the title track. On "American Sports," he offers this tidbit: "My virtual reality mask is stuck on 'Parliament Brawl' / Emergency battery pack just in time for my weekly chat with God on videocall." Just like when he's singing about drunk-dialing an ex, he manages to be both a little ridiculous and widely relatable.
Like they did with Humbug, Arctic Monkeys mostly wiped their palette clean for Tranquility, but it's still got traces of the Arctic Monkeys of old. Alex is still dishing out weirdo tongue-twisters like "Religious iconography giving you the creeps? I feel rougher than a disco lizard tongue along your cheek." (You can almost sing that over "Do I Wanna Know?".) He's also still singing in the now-unmistakable sultry croon he adopted on Humbug (after ditching the shoutier, punkier style he had on the first two albums). The slithering, fuzzed-out guitar of "Golden Trunks" could've fit on any of the last three albums, and as mentioned above, "Four Out of Five" has a similar psychedelic thump to AM. In general, the album shares AM's slick, late-night, sexed-up vibe -- it might be ballad-heavy, but it still shares more musical common ground with AM than with Suck It And See (or with the beginning of "When The Sun Goes Down" or "Only Ones Who Know," etc). It's not an entirely different band, but given how much the new direction overpowers the few traces of familiarity, it is very much an entirely new chapter in this band's career. As for whether or not it's better than their previous chapters... we probably won't find out until LP8.
Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is out now via Domino. Stream it below.
Update: they also played "Four Out of Five" on Fallon:
Arctic Monkeys are currently on their first tour in four years, having just played NYC's Brooklyn Steel (pics, review, setlist) earlier this week. Their tour brings them back to NYC for a bigger and also sold out show on July 24 at Forest Hills Stadium. They've also got a not sold out Upstate NY show the next night, plus shows at Boston's TD Garden, LA's Hollywood Bowl, and much more. They also have pop-up shops in Sheffield, NYC, Sydney, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo this weekend.