Is ‘Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino’, the sixth studio album released by UK band Arctic Monkeys, really be that much of a departure from the band’s older material? Is the record’s sound a complete betrayal of what has come before? The short answer to both of those questions is ‘definitely not’. Lead singer Alex Turner has always shown interest in spacey ballads that feel like they were taken straight from decades gone by, of which there are multiple on ‘Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino’ (I’ll just call it ‘TBHC’ from now on). If you consider the stoner rock sounds and absurdist lyrics on the band’s third album, ‘Humbug’, this new record feels like the alternative route the band could have gone down following that album. ‘TBHC’ isn’t so much a reinvention as a fusion of the stranger and more subdued musical elements of their past work, maturing past the youthful, energetic hard rock they were once known for.
The album opens with the smooth and hypnotic ‘Star Treatment’ – almost picking up right where the final track of ‘AM’, the equally tranquil and reverb-heavy ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, left off. We’re immediately introduced to a sound that fits the record’s title perfectly, as a hotel-lobby lounge pop mood is set by bright vibraphones and jazzy piano arpeggios. Lyrically, the song is not so much a meditation on the band’s sudden burst of fame as it is a somewhat-absurdist satire of it, with Turner crooning about being “a big name in deep space”, as well as how he “just wanted to be one of The Strokes”. It’s probably the most self-referential he’s ever been, the singer reflecting on the band’s garage rock roots while the instrumentation showcases them possibly being at the height of their maturity past that sound. Each individual part of the song seems to come together effortlessly; each tiny guitar or synth lick fitting in snugly to the with the rest of the instrumentation.
This preceding compliment is very much applicable to numerous tracks on here, such as the the second track, ‘One Point Perspective’, which features a simple yet punchy drum beat that is not all dissimilar to a beat off ‘AM’, and a sparky and immensely enjoyable fuzz guitar solo from Jamie Cook. ‘Four out of Five’ – currently the album’s sole single – locks in a tight groove driven by an infectious bass/guitar riff at its commencement, transitioning into a heavenly build-up to the end after a spellbinding bridge. The vocal harmonies on this track in particular, but also throughout the album, are the most lavish and well-fleshed out that they’ve ever been in the band’s discography.
Admittedly, these tracks are often a bit too pleasant-sounding for their own good. Turner himself has stated that his mindset during the writing of this record was one where a holistic album experience with recurrent ideas was the focus, rather than “compartmentalising” these ideas so that each song was its own “episode”. This is definitely the case not just in the lyrics of ‘TBHC’ (more on that later), but also its music. While chord progressions differ fairly substantially (which is more than can be said for a great deal of Arctic Monkey’s discography, especially ‘AM’), the downtempo drum beats, plucky bass lines and echoed, crooning vocals start to blend together at certain points in the tracklist. There are definite hooks here, but they’re incredibly deemphasised compared to the band’s previous material, and can often slip by unnoticed, leaving certain tracks, such as ‘Batphone’, feeling slightly aimless. Conversely, one of the more prominent choruses on the album, which appears on the title track, is one of its most clunky and unmemorable. From a more optimistic standpoint, this could be seen as a good thing, given how some of the band’s songs have emphasised the hook a bit too much (see ‘Do I Wanna Know’ for reference).
The continuous prominence of synths throughout ‘TBHC’ is a welcome change, given how well they’re handled for the most part, and can often add some interest to less ear-grabbing tracks. The eerie melodic lines littered throughout the undeniably catchy ‘Science Fiction’ (possibly the best song on the album) are very much akin to soundtracks from movies of the genre referenced in the song’s title, as are those heard on ‘Batphone’ (though the synths on this track also feel like they could have been taken from the score of a John Carpenter horror movie). The glitchy arpeggios that ride out the album’s title track are an odd and fairly modern addition to a song that can otherwise be described as Hotel California had it been written by The Doors.
A major grievance many fans have in regards to ‘TBHC’ is its lyrics (any musical release that contains the line “the moon’s side-boob” has a lot to answer for) The strong sense of self-awareness in Turner’s lyricism on multiple tracks is something that a lot of these same fans seem to be ignoring. Both the album’s opener and closer (‘The Ultracheese’) feel like they have stemmed from Turner’s cynicism regarding the band’s recent rise in popularity, with the latter being a far less hyper-realistic and more revealing and honest than the former. We also get several instances of the singer taking self-jabs at his lyrics, image and persona. However, these are often few and far between compared to the extensive musings on technology that begin on ‘American Sports’ and are then carried throughout the rest of the record. Some of the references to modern technology are amusing due to their sheer absurdity, but they sometimes border on silly and relatively lacking in substance.
Hearing these lyrical themes over the album’s instrumentation, ‘TBHC’ as a whole feels like an extension of what was mentioned before regarding the title track’s blend of the old and the new. Turner’s vocal delivery is very Bowie-esque on numerous songs here, particularly on the title track. The album’s vintage flair doesn’t stop there – the solemn pianos and triplet feel on the closer, ‘The Ultracheese’, as well as the unison piano/guitar riff featured on the hook of ‘She Looks Like Fun’ (a song that could have easily fit onto the most recent album from Turner’s side project, The Last Shadow Puppets), are very much reminiscent of the rock & roll of the 60’s (specifically The Beatles in the case of the latter track), with ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip’ sporting a chamber pop-style instrumental that sounds almost eerily similar to something off of the Beach Boys’ landmark album ‘Pet Sounds’. It’s this clash that makes the lyrics slightly more intriguing than they are by themselves.
‘AM’ was brought up a lot in this review, which may be slightly contrived considering the fairly substantial amount of differences between the two, but it’s important to note their similarities, as well as what ‘TBHC’ does better than its predecessor, considering how high expectations were set for the new release. Many ‘riff rock’ fanatics who were immediately attracted by ‘AM’ will be repelled just as quickly by the record’s emphasis on keyboards over guitars. The labels ‘pretentious’ and ‘self-aware’ could be applied just as easily as one another to Turner’s jarring lyrics. It’s an odd album that’s nowhere near as instantaneous as rest of Arctic Monkey’s discography, but I think it’s very much worth a shot, or rather multiple shots.