Boy, were we ever wrong about Arctic Monkeys.
The English quartet seemed to be pretty cut-and-dry with their 2006 debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. The loud guitars played with the speed of punk and the distorted riffs of indie rock, with the lyrics of English teens using cigarettes and nightclubs to get through the humdrum of life. Frontman Alex Turner’s snarky vocal delivery was both charming and pompous at the same time. It was easy to see the lines connecting them to the last “next big thing” in English rock: The Libertines. But while Pete Doherty and co. burned out under fame and heroin (but mostly heroin), the Monkeys did something no one expected….they grew up. A couple trips to California and smoking some good spliff got them groovier, with more time for guitar solos and more room for drummer Matt Helders to relax between his rolling beats. And of course there was Turner, who started getting into country music and crooners that snowballed into him trying a slick-haired lover man persona with The Last Shadow Puppets. All that merged together on the Monkeys’ last record, 2013’s AM, that played like four dudes bar hopping with hip-hop on their minds and lust in their hearts. They weren’t brats anymore, just fellas looking for a place to hang their jackets up at the end of the night.
Five years later, they seem to have found a lovely residence to put their feet up at. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino has had a rather curious rollout: odd album title, weird cover, no lead single and the results of Turner spending the last few years plinking away on a piano instead of a guitar. At first glance, everything seems like a typical Monkeys record: 11 tracks at only 41 minutes with no songs going past the six-minute mark. But like all things with Arctic Monkeys, there’s a bit more hiding behind the surface. In fact, the weirdness of this Monkeys record is more obvious than ever before since there are very few loud, fuzzed-out guitars on the record. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is all about the piano and the rhythm, with Nick O’Malley’s bass guitar lowered with more echo and Helders going for slower, jazzier paces. As for the piano, it’s the pencil that etches each scene of the songs. The plinking keys of “One Point Perspective” create the joyous bounce for Turner to use as he dances away his pity and self-loathing, while the spacey organs of the title track color in the excesses that the Hotel’s guests have reveled in over the years.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino could’ve soundtracked the ballroom of Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. The gloomy, dreamy and mostly chorus-less songs throughout the album see Arctic Monkeys playing lounge music for all the swingers and cool kids washed up and unsure of where they’re going to be in the next few years, a similar sentiment the Monkeys must feel now, being in their early 30s and all. It’s hard not to imagine certain fans being confused or turned off by the downturn in energy and uptick in relaxed posing on the album, with moody and pristine production on songs like “Star Treatment,” “American Sports” and “Four out of Five” having more of a classic film soundtrack quality. It’s clear that Turner’s recent revival of The Last Shadow Puppets made a bigger impact than expected, and surprisingly it doesn’t hurt the sound of the Monkeys. With Turner on the keys, guitarist Jamie Cook proves himself to be a fine axeman on “She Looks Like Fun” and “Golden Trunks” with great use of distortion that doesn’t overtake songs. But Turner is the star of this album, more than ever before, with his low vocal coo that sounds like a cocktail of Jarvis Cocker, David Bowie and Tom Waits filtered through an echo effect. His voice fills every single track with depth and bravado, not so much a put-on as it is a tip of the cap to the obvious influences of the album. It’s also not sloppy, as heard in his clear affection of words on “One Point Perspective” or the downright ghoulish delivery on “Four out of Five.” By the time you reach the closing ballad “The Ultracheese,” it’s undoubtedly sincere.
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes” is certainly one helluva opening lyric, especially for an Arctic Monkeys album. So is Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino the soundtrack to the Monkeys’ midlife crisis? Well, sort of. Lyrically, it seems like Turner has decided to enter his 30s by escaping through his imagination, fancying himself as a greasy lounge singer stuck in a self-made rut of booze and babes. “Star Treatment,” which features that regretful Strokes line, has Turner’s character regretful on not being as big of a memorable rock god as his predecessors (“I just wanted to be one of those ghosts/You thought that you could forget/And then I haunt you via the rear view mirror”). Whoever Turner is playing, he’s a very unhappy man as on “One Point Perspective” (“Oh, just as the apocalypse finally gets prioritised/And you cry some of the hottest tears you ever cried/Multiplied by five/I suppose a singer must die”). Plenty of lyrics on the record read like Rufus Wainwright and Iggy Pop collaborated on a collection of beat poetry, but the slick and smooth music adds to the intoxicating atmosphere. The title track is essentially a tour through the hotel and casino as Turner acts as a therapist to whoever is stuck in self-pleasure purgatory with him (“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?”) while still staying in character with some goofy come-ons (“Pull me in close on a crisp eve, baby/Kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob”). Those come-ons don’t stop either (“Smile like you’ve got a straw in something tropical…There ain’t no limit to the length of the d**kheads we can be…I want to stay with you, my love/The way some science fiction does”) but knowing that the music and Turner’s singing style are in service of a narrative (as loose as it may be) don’t make those lines too cringeworthy. In the end on “The Ultracheese,” Turner reveals himself to be a lonesome rocker who realizes that he’s older and all his wild younger days didn’t add up to much clarity (“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”).
Despite all of its low-key pomp and circumstance, it’s certainly the most stylish endeavor the Arctic Monkeys have ever made; Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth of the listener. It’s probably not going to go down easy with some fans and it’ll be interesting to see how these songs merge into the band’s live set. That said, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a fascinating experiment for the Monkeys to undertake and seemingly the only logical route for the band to go after AM. Once again, it remains a mystery as to where the band will go after this record. For now, it’s another reminder that the world was and is never quite ready for what Arctic Monkeys have in store.