In 2013, it was damn near impossible to escape “Do I Wanna Know.” The guitar riff infiltrated every commercial and sports arena that year, making the Arctic Monkeys the generic rock sound every brand needed to sell rum. The English rock group had maintained massive popularity in the U.K. since their 2005 debut, but with their record AM they achieved mainstream American success. After attaining such heights, the group did what any sensible band should and disappeared for five years, coming back now to release a concept album.
Except Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is not a concept album. At least it’s not a concept album in the way that The Who’s Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall is. Alex Turner and the rest of the Arctic Monkeys latest record revolves around a thematic element, but it doesn’t get into theatrics like those other two albums. On its surface it’s an album that puts Alex Turner in the role of a washed up rocker, working as a lounge singer at a Hotel & Casino on the moon in a future dystopian world. But that’s not the point.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino uses a futuristic dystopian setting to point out the issues with technology. Though the first track, “Star Treatment,” does create the setting, it’s more of a reflection of Alex Turner coming to terms with his success as a rocker. The Arctic Monkeys have been a relevant rock group for 13 years, yet every critic is ready to call him washed up. On tracks like “American Sports” and “The World’s First Monster Truck Front Flip,” Turner believes humanity’s obsession over technology is headed down a dark path, and he feels more comfortable saying it from his hotel room on the moon. Within the sometimes dense lyricism of the album, Turner touches on everything that matters: fake news, virtual reality, dating apps, online reviews, and the accessibility of information.
Turner is able to see the potential thoughts that listeners and critics will have on this new Arctic Monkeys album and addresses them within it. Of course, playing the character of a washed up lounge singer, he knows that critics will say he’s actually washed up. Considering he starts the album off with the lyric, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” Turner knows what he’s doing. In the song “Science Fiction,” he essentially lets listeners know that he is using science fiction references throughout to comment on the current state of our lives. The final track, “The Ultracheese,” features lyrics that point right back at him. Turner realizes he may be trying too hard to be high concept and his real thoughts may never come across through the music. It’s a funny, slightly self-deprecating look at the album as it’s concluding.
The most noticeable point about Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is the lack of guitar-driven songs. Ditching the heavy guitars and the sound of the previous album shows range, growth, and a strict focus on the album’s theme. Off the bat on “Star Treatment,” the band is in favor of a piano driven melody. This lounge-y song features a more prominent bass line, setting up the sound for the rest of the track. Throughout the album, the group dedicates themselves to flourishing many tracks with sounds that can only be described as “science fiction” sounds. Tactile beeps and boops, heavy whirring, and anything else you’d expect to hear in 2001: A Space Odyssey pop in and out of songs like the aptly named “Science Fiction” and the title track, weaving the album together.
The two most important instruments on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino are the keys and Alex Turner’s voice. From the first track where Turner’s voice dances over the big piano to the last track, “The Ultracheese,” where he croons his heart out, Turner continues to manipulate the voice and keys to fit his narrative. On “American Sports,” he twists his voice into a darker, sinister one in order to touch on the dystopia of Earth. Sometimes he uses background harmony, like on “Golden Trunks” and “Four Out of Five,” to strengthen his voice. Turner shows off his real range as a musician on “The World’s First Monster Truck Front Flip.” The track is sonically reminiscent of a Smile-era Brian Wilson, but brought up to date with Alex Turner’s bravado in the vocals, pouncing keys, and subtle guitar lines.
Those that expected a straight up rock album from a band known to deliver great rock ‘n’ roll will likely be disappointed and uninterested. There a few moments were the band actually gives in to a more “rock” sound. On “She Looks Like Fun”, there’s a nostalgic guitar solo and an easy, repetitive chorus that doesn’t seem to be entirely based on some sci-fi world. For the most part though, Turner and the band stay focused on the central theme and remain in-character.
However, if those who are only familiar with the Arctic Monkeys for 2013’s AM are open to it, they will find Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino to be an incredibly interesting and complex work of science fiction that bends the genre of alternative rock. What Alex Turner and the rest of the Arctic Monkeys have done here is pulled themselves out of their expected mid-’00s British rock box, demanding the attention and importance of a Father John Misty or Tom Waits.