The Arctic Monkeys’ highly anticipated sixth studio album has been the subject of mythical rumours for years since their 2013 commercial and critical megahit, AM. In the seemingly long and dreaded five-year gap since we last saw Alex Turner and co., Turner co-wrote and produced Portland, Oregon singer-songwriter Alexandra Savior’s debut album and made a second record with his side project duo, The Last Shadow Puppets. Fans were beginning to worry that a new Arctics record was still far off or that the band were on an indefinite hiatus. Frontman Alex Turner even admitted that when he picked up a guitar to start writing for the new record, he felt like he already knew what the songs were going to end up sounding like and he began to feel the ideas drying up.
But then, his songwriting spark returned in the form of an unlikely source: a piano he’d received for his 30th birthday. Everything began to fall into place as Turner’s intrigue for writing on a somewhat foreign instrument began to intersect with his budding interest in science fiction literature and films, particularly those of Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey). As a product of those two factors and perhaps the five year period to ponder the gargantuan commercial success of AM, we get this radical, space-themed concept album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, where the band seems to have a grand David Bowie meets Father John Misty moment.
The album opens with Star Treatment, as Turner reflects on the band’s 15-year career, in the opening line “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes / Now look at the mess you made me make” giving a nod to their early years as a band, their obsession with The Strokes and their evolution as a band since then. Turner has been quoted saying that the Arctics wouldn’t exist without The Strokes and though he’s talked about it in the press, there’s something quite special, vulnerable and ballsy about putting that line on paper and delivering it to open an album. It’s a line that might annoy some people because the press would inevitably gobble it up and of course the NME were going to have a field day, but you can’t accuse the line of a lack of authenticity, self-reflection or humor. The second half of the line also examines their transformation from scruffy, awkward lads from Sheffield to sexy, suave rock and roll crooners from LA. It’s their sort of “How the hell did I get here” moment as if Turner had just woken up from 2005 and had himself a big laugh after looking in the mirror to discover some kind of slick and sleazy Grand Theft Auto character.
Another thing that sticks out is the track’s charming, chill keyboards and the soulful backing vocals, which work perfectly in conjunction with the song’s lyrics about some bigwig lounge singer with a residency on the moon, who may be well past his prime. There’s also a multitude of laugh out loud one-liners that are just too good not to mention “Who you gonna call / The martini police,” “Don’t you know an apparition is a cheap date,” “What do you mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?”.
The next track is the melancholy piano tune One Point Perspective, which has an equally glaring opening line as Turner tries his hand at political commentary for the very first time, even if it’s not overt and it still has Turner’s distinct sense of humor “Dance in my underpants / I’m gonna run for government”. After that political jibe subsides, Turner broadens his scope to address the dark times that we’re living in, but with such a clever tongue and not in an overly morose way “By the time reality hits / The chimes of freedom fell to bits / The shining city on the fritz / They come out of the cracks / Thirsty for blood,” “Oh, just as the apocalypse finally gets prioritized / And you cry some of the hottest tears you ever cried”. Turner also impressively uses one point perspective filmmaking as a metaphor for the tumultuous times. While one point perspective camera angles tell viewers where to focus their attention and allow them to be absorbed by the shot, Turner’s lyrics also shine a spotlight on central themes like our dog-eat-dog world and America’s fall from grace as the so-called “city on a hill.” But Turner isn’t too confident or preachy with his lofty ideas as he accents each self-assured thought with a moment of self-doubt “Bare with me man / I’ve lost my train of thought”.
Next come the circling, spacey keyboards of American Sports, and Turner isn’t beating around the bush with his lyrical message here. It’s a blunt, albeit humorous, critique of the modern day addiction to technology and the 24-hour news cycle, so it’s no wonder why Turner hasn’t joined the social media craze after all these years in the limelight “My virtual reality mask is stuck on Parliament Brawl / Emergency battery pack just in time for my weekly chat / With God on video call,” “Breaking news, they take the truth and make it fluid”. Then there’s the track’s enthralling reverberating guitars and Turner’s jazzy vocal chorus with perhaps his most soulful moment on a Monkeys’ record thus far and one of his best vocal moments period “And I never thought…”.
Track four is the title track and though many albums’ title tracks serve as a centrepiece for the record, this one doesn’t exactly accomplish that, especially with its forgettable vocal chorus, albeit an amusing lyric “Mark speaking / Please tell me how may I direct your call”. While the chorus is a bit unmemorable, the band makes up for it with some intricate harpsichord playing, a slinky bassline and some fantastically witty lyrics “Jesus in the day spa, filling out the information form,” “Technological advances really bloody get me in the mood,” “Kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob”. And you can’t really discount one of the best lyrics on the entire album as Turner poses a hard-hitting personal question (presumably to himself) in the song’s bridge “And do you celebrate your dark side / Then wish you’d never left the house / Have you ever spent a generation trying to figure that one out”.
Next comes Golden Trunks and we see Turner hitting the high notes that he hasn’t really done with his Sheffield bandmates before and a crunchy guitar tone that’s equally eerie as it is sexy. The song also contains some of the most interesting and unusual vocal melodies on the whole record and another stellar opening line that’s so perfectly and effortlessly droll “Last night when my psyche’s / Subcommittee sang to me in its scary voice”. The track appears to be a love song directed at a woman who keeps up with the news and just can’t take the madness anymore, thus we get Turner’s allusion to the emperor with no clothes in the White House “The leader of the free world / Reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks,” “Bendable figures with a fresh new pack of lies / Summat else to publicize / I’m sure you’ve heard about enough”.
Finally, six tracks in, we get a track that one could at least somewhat imagine as a single, but at the same time, it’s so thematically strange that it’s hard to imagine hearing on the radio or playing on the overhead speakers at the mall. Four Out Of Five opens with seductive electric guitars (not unlike AM), soulful backing vocals (at times, Beach Boys-esque) and spellbinding keyboards, but the lyrical content is what’s most dazzling. Turner sings about a post-exodus civilization on the moon that’s already being gentrified and the song centres on the local hotspot: a well-reviewed taqueria called “The Information-Action Ratio.” The “information-action ratio” reference demonstrates Turner’s affinity for science-fiction literature, as Neil Postman coined that term in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which examines the works of landmark sci-fi writers George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.
Further, into the tracklist, we see two more songs that lament the population’s obsession with technology and which demonstrate Turner’s general suspicion of it. Those songs are The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip and Batphone, which share a similar dynamic of wildly interesting lyrics and captivating instrumentals, but choruses that are a bit of a letdown. The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip features a possibly unintentional self-reference to the band’s 2011 track, Love is a Laserquest “I’ve got a laser guiding my love that I cannot adjust” and Batphone has some of the best instrumentals on the whole album with its futuristic keyboards, dark organ playing, the return of their crunchy guitar tone and a separate tone that oddly wobbles and lurks in the background. There are plenty of dynamite lines on Batphone, but one extremely satisfying one, in particular, which makes a mockery of luxury goods “I launch my fragrance called ‘Integrity’ / I sell the fact that I can’t be bought”.
Science Fiction sees Turner at his peak nerd as he warns of “the rise of the machines” and he voices his inability to articulate high-concept ideas in a way that sci-fi is able to accomplish “I want to make a simple point about peace and love / But in a sexy way where it’s not obvious / Highlight dangers and send out hidden messages / The way some science fiction does”. The song also features some of Turner’s most self-aware lines on the album, of which there are many, but this one really takes the cake as it pokes fun at the cleverness of his own lyrics “So I tried to write a song to make you blush / But I’ve a feeling that the whole thing / May well just end up too clever for its own good”.
She Looks Like Fun is probably the second and last candidate for a potential single, but it still has its eccentricities too, particularly with Turner’s dark, low-pitched vocals with gritty vocal effects and Matt Helders’ rousing drumming performance (likely the best on the album), particularly in the way he builds tension in the song’s chorus. The song is a harsh critique of social media personas as it references the perfect lives represented on Instagram “Good morning / She looks like fun / Cheeseburger / She looks like fun / Snowboarding”, those loathsome internet trolls that pick apart our every move “There ain’t no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be,” “Baby but why can’t we all just get along / Dance as if somebody’s watching cause they are” and life that has ceased to exist in person “No one’s on the streets / We moved it all online as of March”.
The final track, The Ultracheese is the slow and steady, feel-good doo-wop tune that cuts through some of Turner’s pessimism on the record and just revels in old friendships and the good old days. Turner’s self-awareness and self-mockery is put on display once again as it references his cheesy, hopeless romantic lyrics and his beloved piano “What a death I died writing that song / From start to finish with you looking on / It stays between us, Steinway, and his sons / Because it’s the ultracheese” and disputing any notion of his intellectual genius “I’ve still got pictures of friends on the wall / I might look as if I’m deep in thought / But the truth is I’m probably not / If I ever was”. With Turner crooning at the piano, the song and the album close with Turner acknowledging his past mistakes throughout the years, but doubling down on the authenticity of his lovey-dovey feelings “I’ve done some things that I shouldn’t have done / But I haven’t stopped loving you once”.
Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino is the closest that the Monkeys have ever come to a concept record, but it’s not quite their Ziggy Stardust or Sgt. Pepper moment either. While it’s the band’s most wide-ranging lyrical album so far (they delve into political, social, economic and technological issues, which they’ve never really touched on before in any capacity, and they discard those “going out” songs), it’s also somehow Turner’s most intimate and candid record so far (it’s apparent why many journalists asked Turner why he didn’t just release it as a solo record). The humility of Turner’s lyrics is one of the record’s undeniable strengths and in that regard, it’s truly the opposite of the peacocking quality of AM. Turner even rightly mentioned in an interview that it’s lyrically connected to their debut album in a way, not because of the lyrical themes, but because of the openness and transparency of many of the lyrics.
Some have said the new album is just an extension of what The Last Shadow Puppets did on their last record and though Turner has said that Star Treatment and the title track from the latest TLSP record were cut from the same stone and written around the same time, the similarities really begin and end there. Of course, this new record and the latest TLSP record both have a retro vibe to them, but for completely different reasons. While the TLSP record took inspirational cues from Isaac Hayes, The Style Council and even a bit of post-punk, Tranquility Base has hints of early Bowie, but overall, feels much less derivative.
This album definitely sent a shockwave among fans and critics and it seems to be equally celebrated as it is deplored. While their 2009 album, Humbug, shocked listeners back in 2009, there’s a sense that Tranquility Base is an even more radical departure in sound. The band chose not to release any singles beforehand and it’s easy to see why. The album’s lack of hooks and memorable choruses means that they will likely receive less radio play and sell fewer records than AM, but you can almost fully forgive them for it due to Turner’s gripping, hilarious and refreshingly blunt lyrics, the brilliantly performed and orchestrated instrumentation and the band’s willingness to shapeshift and push the envelope with something weird and radical after the biggest record of their career.
Another strange phenomenon that can’t be overlooked on this album is that it contains the most lyrical references to America. Though many people ripped on Turner for doing a bad Elvis impression and writing phoney lyrics about living glamorously in LA on AM, this album actually features the most references to American life (Trump reference, “American Sports,” Stanley Kubrick, cheeseburgers, “the place they called America,” etc.). Perhaps this is the album that wordsmith Alex Turner has always been hoping and striving for and it’s hard to disagree with the notion that he’s achieved his lyrical masterpiece on this album. Surely, one wouldn’t normally look to Turner for political and social commentary, but he’s proved to be more than up for the task. What’s also commendable is their fearlessness to make a more keyboard-driven record. AM practically hit listeners over the head with their most guitar riff-tastic record so far, but Turner’s willingness to write the new songs on the piano and allow the songs to rely so heavily on the piano and various keyboards also proved to be successful in the end.
It’s hard to imagine anyone singing along or dancing to this record. This really is a record purely for listening and getting lost in and the band should be applauded for making a record without worrying about the constraints of how it would translate in a live setting. There are many highlights on the record like Star Treatment, Golden Trunks, She Looks Like Fun, Four Out of Five and The Ultracheese, but even the songs that aren’t highlights have something utterly magical about them, whether it be Turner’s endlessly jocular lyrics or the band’s relentless, proven aptitude with practically any and every sort of guitar or keyboard. Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino may not be a fan favourite, but years from now, people will point to this as a seminal moment of the band’s career and a moment where Alex Turner rightfully accepted his crown as a lyrical genius.