Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the sixth studio album from Arctic Monkeys.
Despite having to follow up the best selling British debut of all time in 2007, it’s possible no Arctic Monkeys album has come with as much eyes on it, as much anticipation as this, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, their sixth LP. Sometime after the release of 2013’s AM, the Arctics went from being one of the most reliably great guitar bands, to being the best non-classic rock band filling hockey arenas around the world. AM was a mega smash of a proportion that’s not supposed to happen to rock bands anymore; it’s the only Arctics album to feature songs that you’d hear at 2 pm at a suburban McDonald’s, and it’s one of the best selling vinyl albums of this decade.
Which is to say, there was a clear path that Alex Turner and his lads could have taken with Tranquility Base: Make AM 2, and let the haters hate and watch the money pile up. Instead, they’ve delivered something more thrilling, more baffling, weirder, and ultimately, maybe their best album yet: an album that rolls every post-fame “difficult” album signifier--it’s a concept album, it’s a songwriter’s songwriter album, and it’s also a hard left turn stylistically--into one 11 track album featuring an amazing song called “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip.” Relying on a grand piano that Alex Turner got for this 30th birthday instead of the megaton guitar riffage the band built their name on, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a lounge lizard song cycle from space, a Harry Nilsson album for a generation of kids weaned on Molly and Four Loko. It’s one of the year’s best albums.
Much of the pre-release buzz around Tranquility Base was around how the band did not enter the “build pre-album hype cycle” game, as they didn’t release a single or a music video in advance of the album’s release. That should have let everyone know we were headed for a “divisive” album: the album is centered around a loose narrative of a rock band--in this case, the Arctic Monkeys--becoming famous, and booking themselves a residency on the moon, before becoming ingratiated into the local moon community, opening well-reviewed restaurants and pondering the true meaning of being bored. Between the lines, you get the sense that if this wasn’t just a metaphor and was a reality the band could make happen, Turner would be vaping on the moon. As he says as the first line here, “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes;” now he’s found himself on top of some pyramid he never imagined, and escaping to some distant celestial body--or making an album full of piano crooners where the first guitar riff doesn’t come for like a third of the album--seems like the only rational thing left to happen. “I fantasize I call it quits, dance with the economists, and get to the bottom of it, for good,” Turner sings on “One Point Perspective,” revealing a lot in his word splatter poetry.
Arctic Monkeys albums have always been full of puns and acerbic takedowns, but Tranquility Base is a classic for how many one-liners are here. It’s a shame Instant Messenger got shut down; these would be everywhere on there. There’s the Strokes opening line on “Star Treatment,” and the “I’m dancing in my underwear” and, “Bear with me, man I lost my train of thought” before a couple bar break in “One Point Perspective.” “Dance as if somebody’s watching, because they are” Turner sings on “She Looks Like Fun,” before saying “Life’s become a spectator sport” on “Batphone.” The songs here play like Turner doing a Beat-poet impression with cut-up lyrics pulled at random, which in their way, is like flipping through your Twitter feed; everyone is bored, everyone is selling something, and everyone is just spilling out their brain. The highlight of Turner’s new lyrical approach is “Four Out of Five,” a song that’s a fictional travel infomercial for the moon that talks about lunar city gentrification and Turner’s taqueria doing well on Yelp. It’s insane, and weird, and it’s perfect.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a difficult and self-indulgent album, but you don’t need to believe the reviews that paint that as a bad thing: that’s the entire point. Instead of trying to top himself, Turner took modern technological malaise and filtered it through an album willfully throws off the casuals by making the smoke-filled, dirtbag ‘70s lounge act album they always had in their heart. It’s a bloated, L.A. songwriter album airlifted from 1973 to 2018, and it’s a concept album about making a concept album; it’s purposefully obtuse, and that’s what makes it superlatively riveting. It’s watching a band walk a tightrope off the tallest building on earth, and stepping off the rope on purpose. There aren’t enough bands willing to do that anymore, but the Arctic Monkeys are now one of them.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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