Arctic Monkeys Reinvent Themselves With ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’
English indie rock outfit Arctic Monkeys made music history with their 2006 album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” the fastest-selling debut in British chart history. Having regularly released well-received albums of vaguely punk-derived guitar rock, and established themselves as a steady fixture in the scene, the band steers far left field with their sixth studio album, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.” The latest offering finds singer Alex Turner apparently setting out to prove the title of the band’s debut.
“Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is the inevitable WTF moment that occurs after a restlessly creative artist has rebounded from a whirlwind of quick success, and taken a moment to reflect, shrug it all off, and indulge in whatever oddity comes along. Think “I’m Still Here”-era Joaquin Phoenix. Of course that was largely a joke — but so is this, kind of, maybe. Arctic Monkeys’ new record pokes fun at the underlying comic absurdity of virtually everything we take for granted, and expresses it in a delightfully camp way. It takes some searching to find a musical conduit alien enough to instantly scream absurdity, and disinfect all contained therein with tongue-and-cheek levity. After all, our current musical lexicon is cluttered with vestiges of bygone eras. For instance, you can hear traces of the ‘60s in the vaguely blues-derived vocal melodies and guitar lines of most pop music, and echoes of the ‘80s whenever a snare has a little too much reverb. Turner and crew dig deep, past all this clutter, to excavate an aesthetic that has all but vanished: the ‘70s lounge singer, equipped with permanent half-raised eyebrow, martini glass, grand piano, and swanky finger-snapping routine. As if this isn’t loony enough, the grand piano is not set up at just some ski lodge, but on the moon itself. The entire album is Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie at its most loungey moments, with Turner playing a caricature of a caricature, to an effect that is great fun for performer and listener alike.
On opener “Star Treatment,” Turner acknowledges, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes / Now look at the mess you made me make.” — very well-put. He continues, “Floating down the endless stream of great TV / 1984, 2019.” With Orwell’s prophecies steadily materializing, it’s an odd phenomenon how we interpret the future largely in terms of aspects we recognize from articulations in the past. Conversely, our notions of the past are subject to how the future shapes our conceptions. In this surreal temporal landscape, the anachronistic lounge singer croons on.
The new album will leave many scratching their heads, reaching in vain for the Libertines-esque critics’ darlings that you’ve grown to love — or hate. In “One Point Perspective,” Turner refers to “the shining city on the fritz.” The glitz and gleam is all said and done, old news, and we’re onto something new. For good measure, he adds, “Or maybe, I just imagined it all.”
There are plenty of references to the all-consuming overreach of technology, as in “Batphone,” with the hilariously relatable line, “I’ll be by the Batphone if you need to get a hold,” or “American Sports,” with the words, “Emergency battery pack, just in time for my weekly chat / With God on video call.” The latter song title ascribes the “American” descriptor to all that is excessive and over-the-top, in the same tradition as Bowie’s “Young Americans.” This is further explored in “Golden Trunks,” with the lyrics, “The leader of the free world / Reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks.” ”The Ultracheese,” describes someone, “Dressed like a fictional character / From a place they called America in the golden age.” The Bowie references continue freely, for example in a throwback to “Space Oddity” in the album’s title track, when Turner sings, “Mark speaking / Please, tell me, how may I direct your call?”
In “Science Fiction,” Turner reflects, “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 / The way some science fiction does.” This neatly sums up the whole affair. Apart from the grand piano central fixture and the faithful reproduction of Bowie’s idiosyncratic vocal inflections, the song structures, guitar tones, ambiance, and general emergent sensibilities all make for a very thoroughly realized concept album, of sorts. While “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” will surely alienate some fans, it will also win flocks of new ones, as it demonstrates an unprecedented, creative wit and boldness.
“Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is available May 11 on Apple Music.