Five years ago, Arctic Monkeys released arguably the perfect 21st Century rock album. Killer indie-rock riffs crossed with R ‘n’ B inspired beats, it gave a new perspective on guitar music and cemented their place in Rock and Roll history.
Five years on, Arctic Monkeys couldn’t be further away from the guitar anthems of AM if they tried. ‘Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino’ is a nosedive into the deep end of Alex Turners vivid imagination, with their iconic guitar based sound being substituted for a Steinway piano.
It’s hard to get away from the idea of ‘Tranquillity Base’ being a concept album, narrated by a smooth lounge lizard from a hotel complex based on a planet far away from Earth, but despite the deep-space elements of the record it’s the most honest thing Turner has written since their debut back in 2006. His self-awareness is apparent from the very first line of the opening track ‘Star Treatment’: ‘I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make’. It’s a reflection of their humble beginnings in High Green and their evolution into one of the UK’s best ever guitar bands.
But it’s not just their sound that’s evolved, Alex Turner’s song-writing has also been taken to the next level on this album, from the sparse jazz turnaround on ‘Star Treatment’, or the abrupt change of key on ‘Four out of Five’, it’s obvious to see how much he’s grown in confidence as a writer, with the introduction of the piano playing a big part. The most radio-friendly track on the album would be ‘Four out of Five’. Arguably the catchiest of all the songs with its brooding guitar riff and infectious hook, Turner sings of a ‘taqueria on the roof’ of the Tranquillity Base, just one of countless intergalactic images painted by the master lyricist.
Right from the opening piano progression and drum beat of the album it’s easy to tell that fans expecting AM part two will be sorely disappointed. In ‘Star Treatment’ the narrator tackles the idea of fame, and how adored celebrities are twisted and distorted by the media, with the metaphor of the light of a star acting as the perfect vehicle to drive the point across. Some have argued that Monkeys drummer Matt Helders skills are criminally underused on this album, with ‘She Looks Like Fun’ being the most rhythmically adventurous track; but Helders’ understated rhythms are the perfect compliment to Turner’s song-writing style. Much like Ringo Starr, Matt Helders’ work on the skins holds the entire record together.
‘One Point Perspective’ opens with a Grizzly Bear-esque piano vamp, with Turner singing ‘dancing in my underpants’, a self-deprecating image not a million miles away from some of Josh Tillman’s lyrics on ‘I Love You, Honeybear’. One of the limited similarities between ‘Tranquillity Base’ and ‘AM’ would be Nick O’Malley’s grooving, syncopated bass lines, which can be heard throughout ‘One Point Perspective’ and also the title track.
The transition into ‘American Sports’ is seamless, a high pitched synth arpeggio opens the track before a drum fill introduces the rest of the ensemble. The whole album contains obscure references to popular culture and this track is no different, the opening line of the chorus: ‘and I never thought, not in a million years, that I’d meet so many Lola’s’, is a reference to a 1998 German thriller called ‘Run Lola Run’, just one if countless illusions to modern culture and provides us with an insight into what Alex Turner was taking inspiration from at the time of writing the album.
The title track throws the listener into the centre of the concept of the other-worldly hotel complex. The distant tremolo guitars give the track the feel of a western movie; there are also brief moments where the guitar tones could have been taken straight off ‘Humbug’, providing the song with a sinister element and helping fuel the image of the deep-space casino.
Although it doesn’t seem it, there were definitely moments on 2013’s ‘AM’ which hinted at the new direction the Monkeys and Alex Turner would take. No one could have predicted the switch from guitar to piano, but a song like ‘Arabella’ hints at Turner’s fascination with outer-space and exploring these vivid images. The basslines in ‘AM’ could also be a second cousin of those in ‘Tranquillity Base’, with palm-muting and syncopation creating the continuative sound.
When the track-listing for this album was released the stand out title was undeniably ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip’. The track turns out to be a comment on modern technology and people’s obsession with their devices. ‘The exotic sound of data storage, nothing like it, first thing in the morning’, croons Turner over a jolted backing of a 70’s style organ, bass and percussion, before the song taken a brighter shift with a more regular rhythm and a satisfying chord sequence. The line ‘you and Lizzie in the summertime’ is a direct reference to pop queen Lana Del Rey, as she lives nearby to Alex Turner and Miles Kane.
‘Science Fiction’ is a broody affair in which Turner lets his imagination run wild with Sci-Fi imagery and metaphor; ‘I feel rougher than a disco lizard tongue across your cheek’ being my personal favourite. Throughout the album it’s as if the rest of the band behind Turner are providing the canvas for him to paint his lyrical genius, this is him at his creative best. There’s also a moment of bare honesty in this track similar to the opening line of ‘Star Treatment’, ‘I want to make a simple point about peace and love, but in a sexy way where it’s not obvious’, this is a self-conscious assessment of his own lyricism, he fears hiding the true message of the words too well behind colourful lyrics.
Unsung guitar hero Jamie Cook hasn’t had much of a mention up to now due to the album being so piano and keyboard based, but ‘She Looks Like Fun’ is definitely the track where Cook has the best time. The song opens with a powering, fuzzy guitar riff accompanied by the booming voice of Turner. The track takes a swift rhythmic shift, with the dissonant, stabbed guitar chords sounding very similar to those in Father John Misty’s ‘This is Sally Hatchet’, possibly something else Turner was taking inspiration from. During the chorus the lyrics seem be being generated randomly, possibly reflecting the random, unrelated images seen when scrolling down an Instagram feed.
The following track ‘Batphone’ also develops the idea of technology in everyday life. ‘I want an interesting synonym to describe this thing that you say we’re all grandfathered in, I’ll use the search engine’, this lyric is dripping in irony as the narrator looks up a word to describe our obsession with technology on his phone. The instrumentation on this song sounds very Nick Cave influenced, from the growling, sinister piano motif to the contrast of the staccato synth/guitar melody. Again Turner makes reference to film in the lyric, ‘Vengeance Trilogy wallpaper walls’, the ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ being a trio of films by director Park Chan-Wook. The amount of illusions to modern cinema in the album spark the debate of whether the narrator wants the listener to imagine the ‘Tranquillity Base’ through the lens of a film camera, with each character playing a part in the story of the album.
This is the first Arctic Monkeys album to lack an all-out love song. On this record, closing track ‘The Ultracheese’ is the closest thing to the likes of ‘Cornerstone’ or ‘Love is a Lazerquest’ that we get to hear. A reflective piano ballad about the loss of friends over time and a look back over the life that the narrator once lived. For me this song is so reminiscent of David Bowie’s ‘Lady Stardust’, and it wouldn’t come as any surprise if Turner had taken inspiration from Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ era (with ‘Four out of Five’ also sounding very glam-rock inspired). Just when you think you’re sitting comfortably and ‘The Ultracheese’ has nothing more to offer, two thirds of the way through the band throw in a change in time signature and a key change. It’s these surprises which serve as proof as to how much Alex Turner has grown and matured as a song-writer.
‘Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino’ is an album that must be listened to with care multiple times to truly grasp and understand. It’s no shock that many fans are dissatisfied with this record, it lacks the indie anthems and brilliant guitar hooks that people fell in love with them for, but they are all artists who can never stand still and who’s sound has developed massively with each album they’ve released; it’s no surprise that this record is so different to ‘AM’. People may say that this is their most underwhelming release to date, but in 10 years ‘Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino’ will be viewed as their masterpiece, and a modern classic in its own right.
Words by Jack Waldron