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Album Review: Arctic Monkeys - 'Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino'

16 May 2018 | 12:43 am | Staff Writer
Originally Appeared In

No, read the review.

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And now, a story.

When I first started playing ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, Arctic Monkeys’ newest album, my first gut reaction was “Oh no”. If you were to ask me about their previous album, ‘AM’ (2013), I’d tell you that most of that record was okay, barring some singles that were actually pretty damn good. But I’d also tell you that I hate the closing track, 'I Wanna Be Yours', more than James Bond hates a dry spell. A song like ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ is the purest distillation of everything that disappointed me about their last album; it was painfully slow, overly boring, and the lyrics were so saccharine that my genetic predisposition to diabetes was starting to really concern me.

So, when ‘Star Treatment’ began, the first song from this new Arctic Monkeys album, I thought to myself: “Why the hell would they open the album with such a slow song? This is dreadful.” And then I heard the second song, ‘One Point Perspective’. And then I heard the third song, 'American Sports', and it all began to fully sink in: they’ve made a significantly drastic left turn with this new record.

Fuck. Now I have to disregard all of my preconceived notions about this band that I really like and go in relatively blind. So here we go, friends.

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Arctic Monkeys (but c'mon, it's just "The Alex Turner Experience" by now) have decided to ditch the “catchy blues rock for your mum” style from 'AM' and go with a new sound entirely – subdued, piano-heavy lounge-pop with vintage production that’s basically background music for seedy late night jazz clubs. Which happens to also be a genre dedicated mostly by mums, as well as edgy noir detectives and the elderly. This record was originally written and centred around the grand piano that Alex Turner was once gifted, hence why the core instrument here is the piano, and also why it's spread all over this album like Vegemite. (Get it? Because I hate Vegemite).

To be concise, I’m not a fan at all of this approach. Now, I love my Father John Misty and I like my David Bowie as much as every other insufferable dickhead like me does, but Alex Turner – and the other three members of this once-great British rock band - just aren't cut out for making heady, jazzy space-pop music such as this. Though, that won't stop the pseudo-intellectuals and sycophantic fans out there from telling me "I'm listening to it wrong" or some such bollocks.

Getting into the record itself, the actual music here is relatively dull, and by far the least interesting thing about the album. It does have its moments, sure, but they’re just that: moments. For instance, I really like the fuzz-rock guitar lick heard on ‘Golden Trunks’; I actually really dug the 70’s piano parts in ‘American Sports’; and I quite enjoyed the vaguely sinister sound to the verses of ‘Science Fiction’, which were all rather interesting. Again, the sad part here is that these are just small victories that don't win the war.

Ironically, I will be forever disappointed by what is the coolest song name I’ve heard in quite some time, the album's seventh track, ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip’. Because that title makes it sound like some fucking garage punk track that Arctic Monkeys might've made back in the day (or like some long-lost AFI song from the '90s). Not that I was expecting such a guitar-driven song by that stage in an "artistic" try-hard David Bowie album. As the song itself is way too slow and instrumentally uninteresting, and it has in no way earned the undeniably cool moniker it holds.

On the other side, probably my favourite song of the album overall, musically at least, is the closing track, The Ultracheese’; the only track that consistently pulls off the Monkeys new-found-love for 70’s Bowie pastiche to any kind of satisfactory degree. It also helps the album immensely that the closing track is indeed good. Because if the album had closed out with ‘The World’s First…’, my head would have exploded like that poor bastard in David Cronenberg’s Scanners.

Now, let’s be clear here, Alex Turner does not have the vocal chops to pull off an album with this level of ambition. He's a good vocalist, yes, just not that good. It worked well back when the frontman was singing like a young and pissed-off Brit-chav about being terrible with women, dating terrible women, drinking and doing drugs, and being barred from entry into clubs. (Ah, the good ol’ days). But it doesn’t work with a relatively high-concept record such as ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, try as he might.

Honestly, most of the LP’s best moments might have been worth an EP or a series of singles, but spread this thin over an entire 11-track album, the sound just doesn’t work. That being said, the song’s lyrics are really what I’d prefer to talk to you about with this review, honestly. So now I’m gonna crack my knuckles, remind everybody that me studying literature at uni is fucking useless, and have at it.

This album’s overarching Philip K. Dick-esque concept is about, as the title somewhat indicates, the eponymous hotel and casino of Tranquility Base; a high-flying resort colony on the moon, all with Arctic Monkeys being the live ensemble that performs to the station's various patrons, "two shows a day, four nights a week" as 'Star Treatment' states. The album is a sort of science fiction equivalent to La Dispute’sRooms of the House’ (2014). Except, you know, nowhere near as good. As it doesn't ever really develop beyond that original idea in musical scope, narrative nor theme and is basically just elevator music. Which is kinda fitting given that hotels require elevators.

One particular song, ‘Golden Trunks’, annoyed the ever-loving shit out of me with its lyrical message. Like, did you guys know that politicians change their minds? Oh my god! And that democracy is mostly a performance-based popularity contest? No way! As I said to one friend a few days ago, this track is about as complex and nuanced as every TV show for children that does a one-off “class president election” episode. The title and accompanying lyrics are a reference to Trump because of course it fucking is. Like hopefully any reasonable person reading this, I think comparing Trump to Hitler is for idiots, but the least this song could’ve had was a reference to Hitler making an effort to be a charismatic orator/performer or something. Yet it doesn’t, and it just cashes in on the in-vogue ideas surrounding current politics.

Not to rag on the album more than I already have (and will), ‘Batphone’ was a good track.

I love the idea of an unreliable narrator who is so out of touch with reality that they can’t describe the real world in any way that doesn’t relate to movies, art or culture. And the reference to Pink Flamingos here may be lost on this album’s general audience. I mean, not unless Alex Turner wants his audience to start thinking about eating shit before listening to it. I also enjoyed ‘She Looks Like Fun’, as it seems to be a general criticism of over-obsession with photos and showing off an artificially improved version of our lives to people we don’t know in the slightest. Now, the lyrics aren’t any more complex than “Fisher-Price: Baby’s First Black Mirror Episode”, but at least I could understand what the hell was going on in it lyrically.

Plus, I do get a real kick when people rag on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, so I’m basically drowning in my own confirmation bias here. And since I’m also one of those Hunter S. Thompson types who doesn’t really believe in objectivity, the lyrics are good and you should agree with me because I’m great and I say so. Checkmate.

Another song that really bothered me, though, was ‘Science Fiction’. There’s one lyric here where Turner sings “I want to make a point about peace and love/But in a sexy way where it’s not obvious”, and he follows that up later with him saying, “But I’ve a feeling that the whole thing/May well just end up too clever for its own good.” I don't know about you but I loathe these lyrics like this. You’re not allowed to make an album too cryptic for its own bloody good, and then show off that you’re self-aware enough to know that it’s cryptic and annoying to us as listeners. This isn’t a goddamn Terrence Malick film, Turner! You can't just wank all over this damn album and then tell us to deal with it because we just aren’t as smart as you, oh Mr Smarty Pants Man, sir.

I mean, Jesus Christ, at least when Aesop Rock did it on ‘Shrunk’ it was funny, engaging, and was a deeper reference to his own psychological issues. This, however, was just bullshit.

Look, you may have noticed a strong pattern pervading this review of me finding something I like about a song, only to then discover something I dislike either equally or much more so. As these are all my thoughts and as I'm the one who wrote this piece, I’ve also noticed that too, reader, and it defines this new Arctic Monkeys album. For whenever there’s a good idea, a good section of music or a decent lyric to be had; it’s then all drowned out by everything else ranging from the annoying, the wankish, to the terrible. Occasionally, all at the same time.

I'll just say it: this album sucks, okay? I tried to listen to it with a clear and open mind, trust me, I really did. Yet as anyone who knows their shit will most hopefully tell you, it’s impossible to listen to this album without thinking about how goddamn awesome Arctic Monkeys’ first two albums - ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not’ and ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ - were and still are. The band have really tried to change their sound but it hasn't worked. At all. (Man, at least 'AM' had hints of that more energetic and frankly better Brit-rock sound of old).

Funnily enough, on my first run through of 'Tranquility Base...', when the album was finished playing on my Spotify, the very next song that started up was ‘The View From the Afternoon’, the opening track from Arctic Monkeys’ first album. And it was absolutely wonderful; like I’d discovered Narnia or something. Now that I’m finally done with this review, I can cleanse my phone appropriately by deleting this album from my Spotify, throw my phone into a bucket of hot water, smash it with a hammer, pour ants into my ears, and then jump in front of a goddamn truck.

  1. Star Treatment
  2. One Point Perspective
  3. American Sports
  4. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
  5. Golden Trunks
  6. Four Out Of Five
  7. The World's First Ever Monster Truck Flip
  8. Science Fiction
  9. She Looks Fun
  10. Batphone
  11. The Ultracheese

'Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino' is out now