There are probably only a few artists who can hinge an opening track’s chorus on the line, “Who you gonna call, the martini police?” and come off sounding only slightly—rather than wholly—ridiculous. Is Arctic Monkeys’ frontman Alex Turner one of those artists? Well, maybe.
Dropping five years after their smash hit album “AM,” the British rock band’s hotly anticipated fifth album, “Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino,” is full of weird musical moments and even weirder lyrics, resulting in a work that will surely cause confusion to newer fans and long-time listeners alike, at least on first listen.
But delve deeper, listen to the album four times in a row late at night like this reviewer did, and put aside expectations of a hits-heavy record like “AM,” and even if it’s not their best this may be Arctic Monkeys’ most ambitious album yet.
Long-time fans will know that this shift from radio-ready to somewhat-strange isn’t the band’s first—their third album, 2009’s “Humbug,” also dropped the infectious hooks of earlier tracks like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “Brianstorm” in favor of a more experimental sound.
While “Tranquility Base” isn’t as successful as “Humbug,” it continues to build on their past work. The members of Arctic Monkeys are no longer spotty youths picking fights outside of Sheffield clubs (one would hope), and their changing sound reflects their growth.
This is by far Arctic Monkeys most cohesive record, a concept album that imagines a sleazy, ‘70s style casino lounge on the site of the moon landing. If the tunes sometimes come off sounding like David-Bowie-does-jazz-standards, that’s why.
Unfortunately, this intriguing concept sound is the cause of the album’s biggest disappointment. This softer, more subdued vibe means that Matt Helders, the band’s drummer and one of the best percussionists in modern rock, plays a reduced role. Although he still shines with syncopated brushes and synths, you can’t help but miss the raucous rhythms of previous works.
Likewise, only “Four Out of Five” features the grinding guitar riffs associated with past Arctic Monkeys albums. Turner wrote this album on the piano rather than his usual guitar, and it shows. It may also be the reason why the lyrics take center stage. Arctic Monkeys have always been known for their clever wordplay, but this album breaks new ground for the band with songs that are overtly political, feature a myriad of sci-fi references, and contain some of Turner’s most revealing lyrics.
The aforementioned opening track, “Star Treatment,” is a stream-of-consciousness ramble in which the singer laments that he “just wanted to be one of The Strokes.” The album is full of these strange, self-reflective moments. Elsewhere, on “She Looks Like Fun,” he admits, “I need to spend less time stood around in bars waffling on to strangers about martial arts.” These moments of introspection bring “Tranquility Base”’s space oddity down to earth and grounds it in something more relatable.
“I’ve a feeling the whole thing may well just end up too clever for its own good,” is a line from the track “Science Fiction” that many Arctic Monkeys fans will feel applies to the album itself. After a half-decade wait for new music, it may be disappointing not to hear anything like “R U Mine” or “Arabella.” But for listeners willing to suspend their disbelief, cast off their expectations, and climb on board the rocket ship up to “Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino,” the album is an intriguing look at the otherworldly artistic heights of which Arctic Monkeys are capable.