REVIEW: 'Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino' is a first of its kind; the first boring Arctic Monkeys album
The follow up to the near flawless 'AM' is less fitting as an Arctic Monkeys album and more of a solo Alex Turner record which stumbles to find its footing as the band swerves left
Everything was different when it came to the new Arctic Monkeys album 'Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino'. Alex Turner had been roaming the streets of L.A., holed up on the other side of the pond, far from his home, contemplating new tunes.
There were talks about his new accent, a Southern twang in his diction. Then there was the mention of someone gifting our man a piano on his 30th birthday, so I puckered up to expect a lot more keys (maybe some funky synths) on the new album.
It would be like nothing they'd ever done before they said. I believed it. The much awaited follow up to 2013's near-flawless 'AM' was finally here.
Then there was the unorthodox decision to not preview any singles from the album before its release. It's a concept album, speculated Stereogum. As a die-hard fan who's been listening to the Monkeys since middle school, I didn't find that so hard to digest. Quite the opposite, in fact. It all made it more exciting. Its true majesty can only be realized when listened to in its entirety, I assumed.
Today, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino finally dropped. Just a few seconds into the slow-burner of an opening track 'Star Treatment,' everything made sense. This was different alright. Woven snugly around piano notes, and with layers inviting a deep dive, it was different from the opening notes of any of the Monkeys' five albums to date.
"I just wanted to be one of the Strokes / Now look at the mess you made me make," crooned Alex Turner, preparing us for an intimate, personal journey in his typical witty style, glaringly self-aware.
But I was not ready for what was to follow.
Track after track, the pace of the album remained almost the same. Right about the time one would expect a chorus or a familiar interlude or a break-down, there was nothing. Turner continued to ramble on in an almost monotonous manner, his voice drowned in too much echo, the lyrics still forming the backbone of the album. On the second track 'One Point Perspective,' another slow burner reminiscent of the 50's swing era, Turner caught my attention on the line "Bear with me man, I lost my train of thought." In retrospect, the line seemed to sum up the entire album in one line.
'American Sports' and the title track rolled by too without anything particular standing out. Just more piano and stream-of-consciousness lyrics. By now, I'm staring into space like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car. Almost half the album had rolled by when it suddenly hit me in the gut. This was a first-of-a-kind experience alright - the first ever boring Arctic Monkeys album!
By the time the album was done, I was left with a hollow uneasiness. Half in disbelief, half confused, I was just hoping that this was some joke, and that the band would say 'Just kidding! Here's the actual album. That was us just messing around'. But that's definitely not the case. Alex Turner wanted to be just one of the Strokes. I now felt like quoting the Strokes back at him. 'Is This It?'
A couple of more listens later, I was proved wrong again after assuming the album would grow on me. If it did, it grew on me like a nasty tumor - one that I wanted to amputate! If you're looking for the glorious rock anthems of AM, you won't find it in the album. And even if you steeled yourself knowing that you're in for something completely off the textbooks, you'll still be left dissatisfied.
'Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino' is a solo Alex Tuner album that somehow by accident ended up being Arctic Monkey's sixth studio album. Matt Helders, one of the most talented drummers alive -- who was last seen unleashing his skills with Joshua Homme and Iggy Pop on the 2016 collaborative album 'Post Pop Depression' -- sounds almost like a caged lion on the album, forced to restrain himself from thrashing out his fast-paced arena-jolting percussions. But he holds his ground by adapting to the new sound, throwing in some elements of jazz that go quite well with the wailing analog synths on some of the tracks. But what stands out most on this 'concept album' - a supposed sketch of humanity from a hotel & casino in the spot from the 1969 moon landing -- is Alex Turner's vocals.
In a recent interview with Annie Mac on BBC Radio 1, Turner spoke about how he sometimes comes across his lyrics from their previous work and cringes a little. “There were a few lyrics that went by where I thought, ‘Don’t know what you were thinking there. Probably leave that one out now,'” he said. If that's the case then boy, is he in for the cringe-fest of his life when he comes back to the lyrics of TBH+C ten years down the lane!
"The leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks,” Turner sings on 'Golden Trunks,' sounding less like the finely matured lyrical genius that he actually is and more like a disgruntled teenager's first few attempts at poetry. Even more cringe-worthy and confusing are the lyrics of 'She Looks Like Fun', where Turner throws all caution to the wind and drops seemingly random words to form a chorus that goes "Bukowski, Dogsittin', Screwballin'" while the backing vocals keeps saying "she looks like fun" over and over again. But the winner of the cringe-contest has to be the title track itself, which boasts the fine line "Pull me in close on a crisp eve baby / Kiss me underneath the moon’s sideboob.” Yikes!
It's not as though there aren't some good lines in there. But they're far and few in between all the rambling. In retrospect, it also makes sense as to why the band didn't put out any singles. It's hard to enough to figure out the album with all the context. 'Four out of Five' or the title track, which have the best shots at being singles, would simply not pass for an Arctic Monkeys single. An Alex Turner single? Sure. But not Arctic Monkeys.
As expected, fans are already polarized by the album, judging by the comments online. While some are loving the new direction, some fans are taking the soft blow with grace. Some are just outright disgruntled with the fact that the youngest pioneering rock act of our times just said goodbye to the 'rock' part, while others are just plain confused. One disgruntled fan even took the trouble of editing the Arctic Monkeys Wikipedia page and capturing a quick screenshot. "Arctic Monkeys used to be an English rock band but now they make some weird piano music," the page said for a brief moment.
All said and done, it might be said that the Monkeys' new album is a brave and unfazed effort. But I don't want brave music. I'd just like the usual mind-blowing stuff please, thank you very much! I'd promised myself not to compare the new record to AM. Unfortunately, I have the habit of arranging albums in my iTunes library chronologically in descending order. Around my fifth time listening to the album, the closing track 'Ultracheese', a song that strangely reminded me of 'Drifter In The Dark' by Ween slipped straight into the opening track of 'AM' - 'Do I Wanna Know'. Just four guitar notes into the track, I was left heartbroken.
I can't stop thinking of the first Arctic Monkeys song I ever heard some 13 years ago. It was the title track from their EP. The title of the song seems to sum up exactly how I'm feeling now - 'Who The F*ck Are Arctic Monkeys?'