Review: Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner croons through space on ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’
On this latest Arctic Monkeys album, frontman Alex Turner has essentially transformed himself and his band into a space-age lounge act. Many of the songs here are based around a futuristic hotel on the moon. If that sounds like a bad thing, it’s not. “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is a carefully thought out record as much as it is an amusing oddity.
The album arrives as a follow up to 2013’s hugely successful “AM,” which not only found typical success in the band’s home country of England, but also helped solidify Arctic Monkeys as international rock stars, with a break into the mainstream here in the United States. The album’s catchy, riff-heavy singles found a comfortable place on the playlists of many modern rock radio stations.
Instead of playing it safe, with the same market-tested sound of ”AM,” the band opted to take things in a different direction this time around. Turner, who wrote the entire album himself and also co-produced it, sat down at the piano in order to gain inspiration for the majority of these tracks. This change in the writing process allows for a noticeable break in the polished and possibly overproduced guitar music of the previous record.
And along with that musical shift also comes a shift in Turner’s persona. On this record, he downplays the ladykiller character with the sunglasses and the slicked back hair, maybe in favor of sincerity. The album’s opening track, “Star Treatment,” kicks things off with the attention-grabbing line, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes / Now look at the mess you made me make.”
Much of the lyrical content also serves to set the album in its exotic lunar setting, caught somewhere between the future and the consumerist 1950s — because this is also a concept album about a luxury hotel on the moon. On “Four out of Five,” Turner uses his crooning voice as an advertisement for the album’s titular space hotel: “Come stay with us / It’s such an easy flight.”
For the most part, the music matches greatly with this space-age aesthetic. Loungey piano chords pair nicely with the reverberated drums, and the robotic synthesizer sounds help round out the atmosphere. On “Batphone,” the band allows just the right amount of kitschy organ sounds and surf rock riffs to slip into the mix.
About three quarters of the way through the record, on the song “Science Fiction,” Turner gives some of these thematic subjects a purpose. “I want to stay with you, my love / The way some science fiction does,” he sings. “I want to make a simple point about peace and love / But in a sexy way where it’s not obvious / The way some science fiction does.”
With the lyrics on this album, Turner weaves his way through both a fictional world and a realist setting, set simultaneously in the past, present and future. He creates odd characters mixed in with his own personal perspectives — and it’s all brilliant. But of course, Turner has never struggled with writing excellent lyrics, even if they are sometimes a bit over the top.
There’s a number of other fun tracks thrown in throughout the record, including the sleazy “She Looks Like Fun” and a more theatrical closer, “The Ultracheese.”
But if there’s a complaint to made with this record musically, it’s that most of the compositions end up sounding a little tame. Drummer Matt Helder’s beats are tight as usual, but when compared with the explosive energy of his playing on the first few Arctic Monkeys records, it feels like he is forced to hold himself back.
Nevertheless, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” offers up an engaging listen. It may not be the best Arctic Monkeys album to date, but it will surely stand as a worthwhile oddity in the band’s acclaimed discography.
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