Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys are known for their stylistic switch-ups, but this one’s a corker: they’ve gone and made a sci-fi lounge concept album—and it’s brilliant.
Frontman Alex Turner wrote the eleven songs on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino on a Steinway piano that he learned to play specifically for this album. Holed up in his spare room, he imagined a future where the moon has been colonized and a jaded lounge singer takes up residency at a space-age luxury resort. The album’s written from the perspective of this expat moon resident looking down at the dysfunction taking place on Earth. The songs were such a departure from the Arctics’ usual sound that Turner briefly considered releasing them as solo material; guitarist Jamie Cook told MOJO magazine that “it took a lot more thinking about [it]” to craft them into songs that bore the Arctics’ stamp.
They’ve managed to do it, though. Despite being their biggest musical departure to date, this is unmistakably an Arctic Monkeys album. The sound is big, echoing, cosmos-spanning—there’s barely any trace of the frenetic rock that characterized their 2006 debut LP Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. The songs are much more loosely structured than the tracks on their last album, 2013’s AM—they meander, as do Turner’s stream-of-consciousness, space-inspired lyrics. But it’s almost as if the band can’t help writing their trademark stick-in-your-head melodies. Once you’ve heard standout track “Four Out of Five” once, you’ll find yourself singing, “Take it easy for a little while,” as you go about your daily activities.
Turner’s a master of the beautifully awkward love song; it wouldn’t be a proper Arctic Monkeys album without at least one of these tracks. Here, that song is “The Ultracheese,” a gorgeous, piano-drenched ballad that manages to be both solemn and flamboyant. “Oh, the dawn won't stop weighing a tonne / I've done some things that I shouldn't have done / But I haven't stopped loving you once,” Turner croons, doing a better Jarvis Cocker than Cocker himself ever did. Title track “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” also finds Turner channeling the Pulp frontman’s wavering falsetto.
Not everyone loves this incarnation of the Arctics. Reviewers toss out terms like “hubris” and “ill-considered.” Critics take issue with Turner’s ambling lyrics, sometimes with good cause. At their best, they’re wickedly incisive, like this line from “Batphone:” “I launch my fragrance called 'Integrity' / I sell the fact that I can't be bought.” Other times, Turner navel-gazes so hard that he practically disappears inside his own bellybutton. In “She Looks Like Fun,” he muses, apropos of nothing, “I need to spend less time stood around in bars / Waffling on to strangers all about martial arts / And how much I respect them.”
What makes this whole thing work is that the band pulls it off with such swagger. Turner’s voice is the best it’s ever been. On “The First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip,” he moves effortlessly from smooth Sinatra stylings to that tortured Jarvis Cocker mumble and all the way to Bowie-esque grandeur.
For a band that wasn’t sure they could commit to Turner’s new space-age musical direction, the Arctics have knocked it out of the park, creating a sonic landscape filled with echoing synths and hazy piano, and vocals that sound as if Turner recorded them while floating in a tin can. Still, there’s the tiniest hint of self-doubt: on the slinky “Science Fiction,” Turner confesses, “I’ve a feeling that the whole thing / May well just end up too clever for its own good / The way some science fiction does.”
There’s no need for him to worry. It’ll take several listens to navigate through every twist and turn of this adventurous album, but it’s well worth the trip.
Notable Tracks: “Four Out of Five” | “Science Fiction” | “The Ultracheese”