Review Summary: The first of its kind to get to the moon
Arctic Monkeys, love them or hate them, have never been a band content with making the same album twice. They’ve run the gambit from the impossibly catchy dance punk of Whatever People Say I Am
, all the way to the slick, clean alt-pop of AM
, and in the interest of transparency, it’s my opinion that, save for a quality spike in career highlight Favorite Worst Nightmare
, each successive album has been worse than its predecessor. Sure, AM
has its highlights (Do I Wanna Know and Knee Socks in particular), but the album’s runtime is packed to the brim with filler tracks and just plain mediocre cuts. What AM
did manage to accomplish, and in spades, was to kill off Alex Turner, the youthful, quiet bloke with a knack for storytelling in pop tunes. Rising out of his ashes, a greasy-haired phoenix in a leather jacket, came Alex Turner, the capital-R Rock Star. Gone were the days of Turner stiffly standing on stage like a nervous elementary schooler on speech day; Alex Turner, Rock Star struts around to full stadiums of screaming fans, all swagger and charisma.
And where does this put Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino
, Arctic Monkeys’ long-awaited follow-up to the alt-rock sea change that was AM
" Well, Alex Turner, Rock Star is in full swing on this album, throwing out unabashedly quirky one liners in a confident croon. For all intents and purposes, Turner is now the only member of the band who truly matters: he is the sole writer of Tranquility Base
, and the prominence of the other band members has been downplayed dramatically (It has been reported that, upon hearing Turner’s demos of the record, many of his bandmates were at first of the opinion that the album should be a Turner solo project). All that being said, does Alex Turner, Rock Star manage to make this album work" Well, no, not really.
As much as it pains me to say, Tranquility Base
continues the band’s downward trend. Overall, despite its grand ambition and admirable risk-taking, it is the most bland effort that Arctic Monkeys have ever signed off on. Within the first couple of seconds of its runtime, it becomes abundantly clear that Turner has built this album off of the uneasy union of glitzy piano rock and spacey alt-pop minimalizm, along with a hearty serving of Bowie worship. And make no mistake, the piano is the central instrument of this album: it is the bedrock of almost every track. While this new foundation could have been an exciting change of pace for the band, the songs contained in Tranquility Base
largely bleed into each other, none offering up any particularly engaging ideas to latch onto. Opening track Star Treatment kicks the album off interestingly enough, introducing the brooding sparseness that continues throughout the album, but the song aches for a memorable vocal melody or guitar line to keep from slowly wearing out its welcome. This song, along with most of the tracks on Tranquility Base
, are too simple for their own good. Vaguely jazzy piano chords are the bread and butter of the album, but beyond that there is little of interest instrumentally to be found here. Matt Helders, once a force to be reckoned with for his manic, frenzied drumming, has been relegated to simple beats that test the boundary lines between minimalistic and straight-up boring. The only time the band (that is, everyone but Alex Turner) feels like anything more than an afterthought is on the Bowie-esque She Looks Like Fun, a track severely hampered by its simplicity and aimlessness.
Instead, Tranquility Base
puts a great deal of effort into being as cinematic as possible, with Alex turning his undeniable gift for lyricism toward high-concept sci-fi imagery; his absurdist, non-sequitur approach to conjuring these glamorous scenes is reminiscent of his approach to Suck It And See
. While Turner’s lyrics, painting a portrait of a sloshed, washed-up rock star in a warped world of interstellar lounge entertainment, are appropriate for the overall tone of the record, rarely do they produce much more than a chuckle from a witty one liner. And there’s certainly nothing there than can save the album from the homogenized mess that it largely is, with tracks coming and going without doing much to demand attention. The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip sounds like a Suck It And See B-side forgotten for being too boring, The Ultracheese channels the aesthetic of a closing number to a mediocre stage musical, and American Sports seems to be specifically crafted to be as sonically inoffensive and unmemorable as possible.
Not that there is nothing to praise about the album: when Tranquility Base
is good, it’s really good. The wonderfully dark Four Out Of Five boasts an instrumental that sounds like the best moments of AM
with a tight science fiction twist, and the title track sees the band firing on all cylinders with an urgency unlike any other song on the album, successfully elevating the piano foundation into a proper rock song. Alex Turner himself, while not doing anything vocally that he hasn’t done better before, is as charismatic and interesting a frontman as ever. And it goes without saying that the stylistic choices the band makes, even if disappointing in execution, are interesting and conceptually exciting.
So where does that leave Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino
" Well, I would be lying if I said that I liked this record, even if I can’t help but admit that I greatly admire it in theory. No matter how you look at it, the flaws greatly outweigh the strengths. However, strangely enough, I find myself excited for the band’s future. Just when I thought that Arctic Monkeys would fall further into their radio-friendly alt-rock rut, they put out a piano-based concept album about a destination resort on the moon. And even though the end result didn’t turn out too good, with my reservations diminished, I can’t wait to see where Arctic Monkeys goes next. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take another five years to see what they’ve got in store.