There’s no shortage of symbolism to be found in the fact that ‘Tranquility Base’ was the name of the site at which Neil Armstrong would become the first human to walk on the moon back in 1969. From the very first note of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Alex Turner and the Arctic Monkeys revel in the fact that this is the band’s boldest statement yet; and that’s coming from the same bunch of Sheffield lads who having been ripping up the indie/rock rule book, taping it back together in whichever order they fancy, and preaching it back to the rest of us as the gospel truth for the last 12 years.
And that’s understandable. From 2006 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – where the tales weaved by the likes of ‘From the Ritz to the Rubble’ and ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’ were so real and close that you could smell the cigarette smoke and booze – right through to the slicked-haired, Rock God persona that Turner cultivated on 2013’s AM, Arctic Monkeys have been conquerors from the beginning. And when you take all that into account, it’s understandable – nay – expected, that they’d have to change the script again at some point: no one can keep conquering the same territory forever. It’s just a pity that, for now at least, that’s all Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino can amount to: one small step in a bold new direction.
From the get-go, it’s obvious that this a different prospect to what we’re used to. The opening chords of ‘Star Treatment’ echo and ooze through the door like a ’50s television gameshow host raising the curtain, or like the gaudy keyboard stylings that fill the air of the hotel lobby alongside the cigarette smoke. Matt Helders’ talents on drums have been slowed to a crawl, with the experimental synth work thrown in on the side adding to the space-age retro decor. Meanwhile, Nick O’Malley’s basslines take more of a starring role; thick, chunky, and for the most part driving the melodies of the tracks, which can often lack form, bleeding and flowing into one another and making sure that the new setting Turner has dropped us into is inescapable.
That setting is one we’ve certainly never been to before. Arctic Monkeys have never been retro, and they’ve certainly never been space-age, but both can be felt here in spades. The synth-driven two-step and spaciousness of ‘American Sports’ is almost Pink Floyd-esque, while a good chunk of ‘Golden Trunks’ is delivered in layered, hair-raising harmony in the mould of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Meanwhile, ‘Four out of Five’ is the closest we get to an echo of anything Arctic Monkeys have done before – the crunching bassline, and the actual honest-to-God chorus (which are at a premium here) could fit in best on AM, but not without raising eyebrows; the whole picture here is tinted with the colour palette of a retro film.
The fact is, Arctic Monkeys are a changed band, and a large part of that is down to Turner himself clearly being a changed man. Instead of the mix of distinct choruses and swaggering verses of Arctic Monkeys of old, his thoughts come tumbling out at us, almost more poetry than music; full of sardonic quips (“what do you mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?”), and some of his most self referential lyrics yet (“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you’ve made me make”). There’s even what sounds suspiciously like satire, when he asks “can I please have my money back, my virtual reality mask is stuck on parliament brawl?”. The nuance with which he drops references, and the ease with which he’s clearly still able to turn a pithy phrase show that this is indeed still an Arctic Monkeys album – or at least an Alex Turner one – but it’ll take a few years and another album before we can really see where Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino lies in the pantheon of the band’s work.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino really is just one small step in what is clearly meant to be a giant leap for the band. The balls of it is admirable, and Turner proves he’s still capable of leaving hidden gems anywhere he goes, but it’ll take even the most die-hard fan a long time – and even more listens – before they’re able to get on board with wherever Arctic Monkeys are planning on taking us next.
Words by Ben Kitto