Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino Album Review
It's been five years or so since the last Arctic Monkeys album and of course, expectations were high. They'd gained a multitude of new fans from AM in 2013, preceded by the single release of R U Mine? the year prior and fans were expecting the same stadium-rock sound from the follow up - an AM Part II if you will. However, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, their latest effort in a career where every single one of their releases has topped the UK Albums Chart at release, is as far from AM as it could possibly be.
Whatever People Say I Am That's What I'm Not remains the fastest selling debut album by a band in British music history since its release in 2006 and I have to say, it is one of my personal favourites. It features some fantastic tracks such as Still Take You Home and Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But..., besides the song that everyone knows them for: I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor . This still gets a massive cheer at live concerts these days. Dancefloor is a staple on their setlist and has been since its release twelve years ago. Following the year after was Favourite Worst Nightmare, an album that sounded pretty similar to their debut, but is still one I rate incredibly highly with tracks like Brianstorm and D Is For Dangerous. What's great about Favourite Worst Nightmare is the pace of the record and how it never really slows down - it's like it's at two hundred miles an hour from start to finish and that really shows the energy that the four lads from Sheffield have.
2009's Humbug followed on in a very different fashion. They recorded this much darker, more sinister work entirely in the USA, whilst roping in Queens Of The Stone Age producer Josh Homme to help them out. Humbug collates elements of desert-rock this time and is still great, but to many fans doesn't live up to the standards of the first two and indeed is an album that lost some Monkeys fans. It's a slower album by all accounts but tracks like Crying Lightning, Cornerstone, as well as Pretty Visitors have made it onto the setlist for their current tour and those songs are great, but lack some of the energy seen on the first two. Suck It And See followed in 2011 and is arguably their best besides their debut personally speaking. It's a lot more mature than the first two and could be considered more pop-orientated than Humbug particularly. It shows evolution from Humbug's desert-rock and moves on from the loss of some of their fanbase. However, it still includes some incredible songs such as Black Treacle, Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair and The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala. Suck It And See sees the Monkeys return to form and although some fans got tired towards the end of the associated tour, they released new single R U Mine? in 2012 for Record Store Day and this rejuvenated the fans' interest in the band - it showed that they really still had it.
2013's AM proved to be the real commercial success, full of stadium-rockers such as opener Do I Wanna Know? and Arabella, which shows an evolution, with Alex Turner more sophisticated in both delivery and the lyrics themselves. Seven years prior, he'd been talking about fucking taxi ranks and now he's talking about a girl whose lips are like the galaxy's edge and he kisses the colour of a constellation falling into place - his lyrics have improved greatly as time has gone on, although there's still something unconventionally charming about his punchy and aggressive delivery on tracks like Dancing Shoes. AM allowed many new fans to jump onto the Arctic Monkeys bandwagon and gave them something they had wanted - something that slightly harks back to the heady days in High Green, Sheffield. Now, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino has divided an awful lot of fans - some love it and some hate it. Unlike their last five offerings, no singles preceded its release which left fans like myself rather intrigued as to what Alex Turner and the band had to offer after a five year hiatus or so.
Of course, with Tranquility Base, everyone was going in blind with no idea of what the boys could muster up. Well, at a first glance, it's a complete polar opposite to AM but, is that necessarily a bad thing? There's little snippets of this lounge feeling on parts of Alex Turner's efforts with good friend Miles Kane on The Last Shadow Puppets' latest album Everything You've Come To Expect such as The Dream Synopsis and Sweet Dreams, TN, which showed Turner's direction. Below is the full-on, in-depth review.
The Album Itself
Star Treatment - “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes/Now look at the mess you’ve made me make….” sings Turner on Tranquility Base’s opening piano-driven number. It’s a track that sets the scene and tone for the rest of the album where Turner plays the part of the frontman of the fantastically-named lounge band The Martini Police. It's a track where he appears regretful that the period of time since the inception of The Strokes has passed by in a flash and he’s turned into this forty-something year old man who’s wistful about his past and what he’s turned into. The song’s inception came with Turner’s time with the Last Shadow Puppets and this is evident with some of his work with them and truly shows the direction he wanted to take with the new record. As opening numbers go, Star Treatment truly takes us away to maybe the piano bar at the hotel & casino where the lounge singer resides, whilst looking back on the past and how he’s been pulled down from the height of his fame during the wilder times of the seventies and now has to take up a residency as a lounge singer with The Martini Police as his backing band; it’s a truly wonderful song that gives us the right ambience for this laid-back tour of the hotel and casino and insight into the life of the lounge singer.
One Point Perspective - “Dance in my underpants, I’m gonna run for government, I’m gonna form a covers band an’ all….” is the magnificent opening line of the following track that sees the lounge-singer mock the hasty nature of today’s world and the gung-ho attitude of today’s society. The song takes its title from a filming technique pioneered by Stanley Kubrick with relation to certain scenes of films where all of the symmetrical lines in-frame point to the centre-point of the frame. This is something which Turner really takes inspiration from and replicates in the video for Four Out Of Five, the lead single with the video showing a recreation of scenes from Kubrick’s iconic film “A Clockwork Orange”. The line “I’ve played to quiet rooms like this before” seems to fit perfectly with the scene that Turner wishes to set – a lounge singer who’s fallen from grace on this “elevator down to [his] make-believe residency” which suggests that it’s hardly real or tangible for that matter and maybe that the crowd don't necessarily care for the washed-up singer and his backing band which they see before them in the piano bar. The song critiques society today with its mention of ideological documentary Singsong Round The Money Tree referencing a Conservative Party statement last year. Overall, One Point Perspective is one of the best songs on here and acts as a perfect early insight into the mind of the lounge singer.
American Sports – A slightly shorter track this time at around two-and-a-half minutes. This track continues on from Star Treatment where Turner, as the lounge singer, takes a look himself into this dystopian future and gives the listener an insight into the habits of the hotel’s inhabitants. There’s not really a lot to say about American Sports since it’s such a short track, but rest-assured that it’s one of the best full stop and the transition between One Point Perspective and American Sports is fluid and absolutely gorgeous – it’s a tad reminiscent of the transition between Kayleigh and Lavender on Marillion’s masterpiece Misplaced Childhood in terms of overall fluidity.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino – A fantastically named album also happens to come with a superb title track. Continuing on from where we’ve left off, the title track portrays Turner instead as the receptionist of the hotel, Mark, who appears to work on the main switchboard of the hotel. Turner's vocal is hauntingly delicate and conversational and ridicules society and the influence of technology over people’s lives and this Mark that he refers to could possibly be Mark Zuckerberg – Turner once described how Zuckerberg is “too powerful for his own good” during a 2016 interview and therefore he furthers this critical attitude of technology and its influence over people. It’s a fantastically well-written and performed song that is also amazing live, especially with the newer Jam Of Boston transition that the boys have added during the latter shows on the tour.
Golden Trunks – Ah, where to start? Notably, it’s one of only a couple of tracks in the Monkeys’ entire discography that doesn’t feature any drums, with one of the others being a wonderful album track and rarity, Only Ones Who Know. The track is a superbly-formed conversation between himself (possibly as the lounge singer from Star Treatment) and a girl he’s falling for – the figment of her imagination that he’s appealed to, as said by Turner during his tremendous interview with John Kennedy on Radio X. The theme of critiquing something continues with Turner’s jibes at modern-day transient politicians and political attitudes. He describes the leader of the free world being reminiscent of a professional wrestler who comes along with his own theme tune – the rich vein of references to Donald Trump are uncanny. It’s been said in the past that Trump’s rallies are comparable to that of rock concerts in terms of atmosphere and the blaring music. There’s also the absurdity of the wrestling analogy – Trump did actually play an on-screen role in Vince McMahon’s WWE for a few years part-time so, it’s ironic Turner mentions this, although his comparison does deserve a fair amount of credit. He comments on the nature of modern-day politicians and their pragmatism to appeal to the public as best they can by describing them as bendable figures - easily influenced. Golden Trunks is a politically-driven love song that is haunting like its predecessor but also carries this certain charm with the internal monologue Turner portrays – arguably one of the best tracks on here.
Four Out Of Five – A track that all fans can agree on as one of the best on the album, Four Out Of Five is the lead single and features one of the most notable choruses. As a whole it lacks choruses (as said by Noel Gallagher) so it’s nice to hear one on this track. The ideas portrayed don’t really get any less absurd with the idea of putting a taqueria on the moon becoming a reality in the form of The Information Action Ratio, which, in itself, is an inspired name for any business. There are allusions to television shows of old with the “Old, grey whistle test lights” reaffirming a smile on the face of the listener with this echoing a popular music show on the BBC during the seventies and eighties, in-keeping with the whole seventies theme. It harks back to the works of David Bowie with its over-riding similarities to Space Oddity on the bridge, and as a song, it’s one of the most readily-available but unlike some, doesn’t take a myriad of listens to learn to like. Four Out Of Five gives a great invitation to the listener to take the Monkeys as they find them without any form of judgement; the track is one of the best full stop.
The World’s First Ever Monster-Truck Front Flip – A track that certainly caught the attention of fans from the get-go. Turner returns to this emotional vocal that was last seen on the title track where he describes people’s infatuation with technology and its convenience to the population. The opening lyric harks back to an old Kodak slogan from the 1800's whereby the chief executive wanted to appeal to amateur photographers with the operation of a relatively new technology being at the fingertips of the end user. Interestingly enough, Matt Helders, the drummer, is an amateur photographer himself. The song continues on the theme of technological advancement, but also really questions the relevance and need for some of these advertisements that narrow a person’s brain. The title of the song is like one of these, usually seen as advertising below an article and one of those you can’t really resist clicking because of its absurdity. It’s describing how society in its entirety is attracted to the absurd and how we go looking for it to keep on using technology. Turner’s sad, lamenting vocal, combined with the underlying organ in the background allow a clever image to be painted in the mind of the listener with Turner’s sophisticated and conversational delivery keeping me hooked throughout.
Science Fiction – One of the more piano-driven numbers, this is Turner’s love letter to the genre. His obsession led to the writing of this song so he could criticise society today in the medium of a created one through the song. It questions scientific advancement and Turner uses it as a metaphor to pose the question of the movement of the relationship he has with a girl (maybe the girl from Golden Trunks) and how they’re going to move forward with regards to love. The guitar in the background of the piano, Helders’ pans on the drums and Turner’s deep vocal paints a sinister picture of the world, possibly something comparable to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from 1927. It’s this darker world that is only seen by those who reside in this fictional hotel or possibly the way that Turner’s lounge-singer views the world. The over-riding bass tones add to the ominous nature but also provides a concrete backbone to what proves to be a well-comprised song with some brilliant symbolism.
She Looks Like Fun – The comedy song of the record, this is my personal favourite. It’s all very well and good having Turner’s solo pieces commenting on the politics of the world and our ever-incessant, possibly abusive and pointless relationship with technology, but there has to come a point where all of the prevailing dark attitudes drop and reveal a much lighter side to Turner and possibly the lounge-singer himself. It harks back to something from The Beatles’ 1969 Abbey Road with its lighter, happier tone, slightly off-the-wall lyrics and a fantastic guitar solo. Helders' drum work is reminiscent of that found on The End and also Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, which also combines with the comedy nature of the song. It’s a simple song lyrically but there’s a naive bluntness to it all - “I’m so full of shite...I need to spend less time stood around in bars waffling on to strangers all about martial arts” - there’s blunt rhyme and half-rhyme in “Shite” and “Time” and this can be seen throughout the song really. This all harks back to the heady days of Sheffield in some strange way, but it’s now more refined and sophisticated. She Looks Like Fun allows Turner to relax a little and show the listener that himself and indeed the lounge-singer have a brighter and lighter side.
Batphone – Sounding like something out of an Adam West-starring television series, Batphone comes a very close second to She Looks Like Fun for me in terms of picking a favourite. The title is business jargon for a private phone whose calls take priority over any official channels and the song overall acts as a metaphor about technology and critiques modern life no end. It describes the numerous layout and processes change each time with every bug-fix and little update applied to phones and other modern-day technology. The closing line of “Panoramic windows looking out across your soul” refers to the way technology is now an essential part of our lives and such windows are the screens of phones or perhaps computers. Turner describes the vastness of the array of emotions and personality traits that people are able to determine about someone through the mediums of texting and social media. There’s a certain intimacy to those mediums that mean people are encouraged to be themselves and therefore it allows these windows to stretch out across the soul of the people sending the messages. Overall, Batphone, with its low piano notes, higher-volume bass tones and critical style paints this fantastically detailed picture of modern society and acts as a perfect soundtrack – it’s timeless.
The Ultracheese – Even the title epitomises Turner’s infamous associations with celestial imagery and his tremendous ability to entwine it in any song he writes. We get the sense that this song would close the set of the lounge-singer’s residency at the hotel’s bar/restaurant with Turner’s powerful vocal evoking a serious sense of emotion from the audience with its likeness to songs from the past. It rings the bells of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in a way – those old-time crooners reminiscing about their lives and how it all used to be. There’s this element of detachment presented to a past love, how his love for them is eternal and how he’s constantly reminded of them from the pictures he’s left up on the wall for the sake of sentimentality. Then, how it will always stay with him in the form of some golden vinyls for example – they are invaluable to him in the most precious way possible. As far as songs go, there aren’t many better than this with Turner’s soft, low, crooning vocal and symbolic piano usage reminiscent of that found on Piano Man by Billy Joel for example. It seems like The Ultracheese will go on to stand the test of time, not just because of its off-the-wall title, but because of the careful musicianship and its crude simplicity. It’s a masterpiece.
Overall, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino isn’t to be enjoyed individually; it’s a pure collective of songs that all have a myriad of common themes linking them in an infinite number of ways. Turner's lyrical brilliance has found its way onto this record in spades once again and the musicianship of the rest of the band combine with this to produce nothing short of perfection in my book. Some fans may not like it because it’s so far from what they were expecting and that’s fair of course. Personally speaking, I don't believe there's really a weak track once it’s been given a few listens and from that moment on, you’ve arguably got the album of the year. It sees the Monkeys return to their very best and whilst fans may be divided on it, that will never detract from the unadulterated perfection that they’ve created. Good work boys.