A beautiful head f*ck, the new Arctic Monkeys album is anything but conventional
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is the most experimental Arctic Monkeys album to date
So don't expect to hear rapid-fire guitar licks and sing-a-long choruses that aid in the painting of walls in student unions with adolescent sweat and stale beer, because it's just not happening.
From the moment I pushed play for the first time I realised that what I was about to hear was something very left field, especially for a band like Arctic Monkeys, a band who, for the most part, has stuck with a similar sound their entire career, a sound influenced by The Beatles and The Strokes.
With Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino you’re dropkicked down a rabbit hole of twisted wonderment that sounds like the soundtrack to a murder mystery vampire movie directed by David Fincher - if Nosferatu doesn’t pop up donning a trench coat and smoking a pack of Newports in any of the album’s upcoming music videos I want my money back.
So what have they done different?
Pace is a good place to start. Slowing down like an F1 car going into a bend at Silverstone, the album’s tempo in comparison to the rest of the Arctic Monkeys back catalogue is considerably slower, so much so that when I heard the opening chords to “Star Treatment”, which sounded like something Prince would have created, I thought I was listening to the wrong album.
But this isn’t a bad thing. It allows more time to analyse and digest Alex Turner’s songwriting output, which on this album is so out of this world that it’s practically intergalactic. So complex and easy to write off as crazy, the lyrics contained on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino don’t always make sense, but that’s exactly the point, you’re supposed to dig deep and come up with your own interpretation of what’s going on.
Addiction seems to be one of the ongoing themes throughout the 11-track album. “Batphone” addresses being addicted to technology, specifically our phones, while “Golden Trunks” dips its toe into love addiction.
Then there’s “She Looks Like Fun”. From the outside looking in it could be interpreted as a typical boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl-type story, but there’s more to it than that. Peeling back the song’s layers there’s a case to be made that it’s about alcohol addiction and the battle with drink. So “she” is a drink and when Turner sings, “I’ve got the party plugged right into my skull” he’s referencing that heightened state of fun that alcohol can enable.
Singing with an almost David Bowie-esque tone for the majority of the album, other topics broached by Turner include religion, artificial intelligence and upper echelon thinking. However, none of it would be even remotely pleasing to the ear if it wasn’t for the production.
Playing like an Ennio Morricone film score for the modern age there are tracks such as “Science Fiction” that simultaneously ooze beauty and eeriness thanks to its multi-track string arrangement.
Opting for cinematic synths, uneasy keys, calculated guitar riffs and a selection of unorthodox drum loops, the backdrops on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino are what you’d expect to hear on set if you were guest starring in a Tarantino-esque mafia movie with a blaxploitation twist.
Not without its flaws, the main defect the album possesses relates to its vocal production. More than likely done on purpose so that you have to listen to it over and over again, I found myself leaning closer and closer to the speaker in my living room just to understand what Alex Turner was saying because his vocals were so low and muffled in parts, and even then I didn’t catch everything.
Even if it is intentional for artistic purposes it doesn’t make it any less frustrating, especially for someone like me who wants to read in-between the lines and get a grip on the album’s concept. It’s comparable to watching a bootleg movie where there are foreign speaking parts in it but the English subtitles haven’t been included; you could miss out on a key part of the narrative. Annoying, right?
Something else that stuck out to me after my sixth or seventh in-depth listen was that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, on more than one occasion, sounds like it could have been inspired by Ghostface Killah’s Twelve Reasons To Die album. The Wu-Tang man’s cinematic slept-on classic was produced entirely by Adrian Younge, who was also responsible for the Black Dynamite score.
Whether it’s “American Sports” with its bizarre narrative, or “Golden Trunks”, a track with crashing guitars that hears Turner compare Donald Trump to a pro wrestler in a pair of gold speedos, go and listen to Ghostface’s album and then listen to this one and tell me I’m wrong.
It would be easy to say that the album is built around a singular concept but I’m not so sure that it is. It’s confusing but in the best way possible. Like a treasure map that can be read various different ways, you have to pinch yourself throughout just to check that you’re not in an episode of Lost because reality knows no boundaries on this go round.
Is it an album about self-discovery whilst locked away in a mental institution disguised in the mind as a hotel and casino? Is it about a star who’s fallen from grace that takes refuge in a literal hotel and casino? Then there’s the theory that it’s a story told from the perspective of someone who’s dead - on the album’s title track the opening lyric is: “Jesus in the day spa filling out the information form.”
While it’s not known exactly what the album represents what is known is that this is the most enjoyable Arctic Monkeys album for quite some time. Stepping out of their comfort zone and trying new things is a sign of both personal and artistic growth. The world’s a scarier place than it was 15 year ago and this album is a sign of the times.
It’s a refreshingly undisturbed album that feels like it would be more at home in a dingy hole-in-the-wall jazz club than it would on the main stage of a huge festival.
If you’re a fan of the type of music that requires multiple spins and a fan of learning new things about an album two months down the line, or even two years down the line, then Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is going to live with you for a very long time.
Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is out now on Domino Records.