Call it the inevitable surprise. The story of Arctic Monkeys’ career to date being that of a gradual gentling in their guitar attack, the logical end point was an album with hardly any guitars or attack at all. One counts the days till some clever wag dubs the new Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino the band’s Kid A. [Ed. Note: Mike, you can stop counting now.]
It isn’t. It’s not that left-field, more the latest stage in an evolution going all the way back: to the clattering bar fights of their debut, the 2006 U.K. smash Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which gave way to the more polished but equally pummeling Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007), which begat the brooding self-doubt of Humbug (2009), the crooned pop balladry of 2011’s Suck It and See, the locked grooves of 2013’s A.M. Across that span, you’d have noticed less and less of the often punishing pace and oddball serrated riffage that had been the band’s early stock-in-trade, with the boys seeming bound and determined to bevel out and lacquer over their formerly jagged little thrills.
We’re given to understand this had something to do with cracking the tough-nut U.S. market, with respect to which their success has been a mixed bag. A.M. went platinum this side of the pond, getting Arctic Monkeys as bigly exposed as a sold-out night at MSG, but still failed to make theirs a household name stateside. Meanwhile, there continues to be a vocal contingent in the fan base here — call it the backward-hatted faction — clamoring for a return to the snottier, more aggro “early stuff.” Arctic Monkeys can’t win for losing.
Accordingly, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino begins with the sound of lead man Alex Turner tossing up his hands as to what’s liable to stick in a country as savagely fickle as ours. “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” he intones. “Now look at the mess you’ve made me make/Hitchhiking with a monogrammed suitcase/Miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway.”
The track, “Star Treatment,” will go on to posit an alternate-universe version of Turner: a frontman who was “a little too wild in the Seventies” (the actual frontman was nowhere near alive for that decade) and who presently finds himself crashing “back down to Earth with a lounge-singer shimmer/Elevator down to my make-believe residency from the honeymoon suite/Two shows a day, four nights a week/Easy money.” Or maybe that’s the psychic state in which the real Turner now finds himself, his band’s heady early days well in the rearview as he reckons with having softened the group’s approach in search of a sort of broad palatability, one that still didn’t get him quite where he’d hoped to be.
But while the downtempo arrangements — and relative absence of any sound for which sawtooth might seem a fitting descriptor — may mark this new batch as of a superficial piece with A.M., here those elements work toward far different ends. Tranquility Base is as cagey and anxious as A.M. was a slickly assured unit-shifter; the new album’s chockablock with self-lacerating lyrics (“I’m so full of shite,” e.g.) and meandering, irresolute melodic lines. Even the grooviest-sounding thing here, “Four Out of Five,” turns out to be a Trojan horse for Turner’s mordant irony as he plays dubious real estate pitchman:
Come and stay with us
It’s such an easy flight
Cute new places keep on popping up
Since the exodus it’s all getting gentrified
I put a taqueria on the roof
It was well-reviewed
Four stars out of five
And that’s unheard of.
Now is probably as good a time as any to note that the hot new property his narrator’s shilling for isn’t on this planet; it’s on the moon, “around Clavius” to be precise, with the “exodus” referring to a speculative and apparently very literal kind of white flight. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a concept album, see — a loose one, maybe, but still — and, that being the case, also a license for getting out of Turner’s usual lyrical, um, orbit. Gone are the straight-ahead character sketches, the wry accounts of wasted nightlife, of young romance, of oily pimps and douchebag strivers and irresistible femmes fatales and guys in tracksuits you’d best avoid after they’ve got a pint or two in ’em. And in their place…well, what?
As Turner has aged, his lyrics have shied away from making themselves amenable to easy reading. He remains a writer without peer in virtually all of rock, but he’s become, over the years, brick by brick more oblique and abstruse — more apt, too, to adopt the perspective of somebody else entirely, and so more editorially unreliable. See, for example, the new album’s title track, where he tries on a new persona (hardly the only thing Bowie-esque about the song, it bears noting): “Good afternoon, Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino/Mark speaking/Please tell me, how may I direct your call?” If you don’t think that’s Turner being willfully opaque, consider the non sequitur that concludes “One Point Perspective” (“Bear with me, man, I lost my train of thought”) or this triplet, from “She Looks Like Fun”: “Finally I can share with you through cloudy skies/Every whimsical thought that enters my mind/There ain’t no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be.”
So while one might catch the occasional passing mention of the “apocalypse” that necessitated that lunar sojourn — and while one can certainly enjoy Turner’s trademark rapid-fire prosody and facility with internal rhyme on their own merits — identifying anything like an overarching story line is probably a futile exercise, especially given how that thread is forced to share airtime with all the career-retrospection. Besides, concept albums are only ever as good as their actual melodic material, which is why no one cared that Sgt. Pepper abandoned its conceit two songs in, and why no one listens to Dark Side of the Moon for Roger Waters’s thoughts on being and nothingness.
And here’s where Tranquility Base is most characteristic of the Arctic Monkeys oeuvre: It’s another wildly uneven work, song-quality wise, from an act you’d be hard-pressed to call a great “album” band. The record’s noticeably front-loaded, for one thing, failing to achieve much of any interest beyond the midpoint. “She Looks Like Fun” turns out to be an interminable bore; “The Ultracheese,” living up to its name, pure schmaltzy schlock.
On the other hand, “Star Treatment” nicely sets the mood, all plodding jazz borne on the breeze of a tinkly piano until the welcome drama of a gloomily repeated low-end figure, and never mind if the chord changes take the proceedings dangerously close to Steely Dan. The title song, meantime, manages to accomplish in about ten seconds what Turner could fill up notebooks trying to convey, its restless swept arpeggios and implacable-machine bassline conjuring the kind of deep-space dread for which one usually has to turn to films like 2001 — this even as the lyrics (“Jesus in the day spa, filling out the information form/Mama got her hair done, just popping out to sing a protest song”) remain as elusive as radio waves careering through infinite space. Then there’s high-water mark “Four Out of Five,” its killer cool and pure-pleasure harmonies belying an escalating desperation.
Thankfully, then, Arctic Monkeys still know their way around a good hook — guitars or no. As to the next phase in their continuing evolution, one hopes it’ll finally be the album that, whatever its thematic concerns, comes packed cover to cover without a skippable cut in the lot. Till then, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino will have contributed a handful more tracks to what is, no doubt, a very fine best-of playlist: