Imagine you’re driving along a desert highway. There’s nothing for miles until you come across a solitary hotel that no one has checked in to for years. Inside is a smokey jazz lounge. A tortured artist is sitting at a piano in a dark corner with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a glass of scotch a top the piano.
Oh, and the hotel is on the moon.
Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, the sixth studio album from Arctic Monkeys, is what would be playing in the background. The new record from the Sheffield indie rockers ditches the classic grunge sound we heard on AM, replacing the drive of heavy, standout guitar riffs and rock percussion with soft piano and ambivalent lyrics questioning life, the universe and everything. If cosmic conspiracy was a musical genre, that’s where this album fits.
The opening track ‘Star Treatment’ is the perfect teaser for the rest of album. You can visualise Alex Turner sitting at the piano, with a sip of his drink and a clear of his throat, going into this epic monologue about the future, space, technology and alcoholism. He even refers to himself as coming “back down to earth with a lounge singer shimmer.” That line sums the entire album better than I ever could.
‘One Point Perspective’ sounds like the song that plays once the pianist has gauged the audience’s reaction, but the audience only contains you and maybe four other shady characters. Alex Turner even acknowledges this with the line: “I’ve played to quiet rooms like this before.” Driven by staccato piano chords that on first listen sounds like the intro to Serial, the lyrics sound like stream-of-consciousness diary entries, before some funky, bluesy guitar comes in to provide familiar comfort to veteran Monkeys listeners.
‘American Sports’ sounds like Tame Impala were asked to add a song to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
The title track is the fourth on the album and Alex Turner’s long, drawn out vocals and annunciation make it seem like David Bowie has been reincarnated – the album itself has been referred to as a Bowie tribute, and this is where that is super clear.
The song itself is ominous and creepy, a signature for any Arctic Monkeys song really, and paints a perfect picture of the hotel I described earlier. It’s like a sequel to ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles.
‘Golden Trunks’ is a bit more AM. ‘Four Out of Five’ is probably the stand out track just because of its familiar Arctic Monkeys sound. The guitar is reintroduced, it’s less bluesy, more rock, and while still fitting with the overarching theme of the album, is the easiest to sing along to. ‘Science Fiction’ confirmed my theory that there was some kind of Rocky Horror Picture Show inspiration behind this compilation, but the piano hook sounds like the same one from ABBA’s ‘Money, Money, Money’.
The rest of the songs flow into each other pretty effortlessly.
Every song on the album sounds like Alex Turner has taken a step back, landed on another planet and is looking down on the world to commentate on the simultaneous absurdity and mundanity of humans.
The thing about TBHC is that it is very much an all or nothing album – no song particularly stands out from the rest, so you have to listen to the entire album for the full effect. This is one big artistic piece, not a collection of eleven different songs.
It’s been divisive to say the least, but given that it’s been five years since their last album, we had to expect a shift in sound. In retrospect, the standout of AM probably was ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’, which, looking back was maybe a hint at the new sound Arctic Monkeys wanted to experiment with.
Love it or hate it, Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino did exactly what it was meant to do. Alex Turner said himself that he planned to write an album depicting a 1970s hotel on the moon, and that’s what he did. TBHC scores a very fitting ‘Four Out of Five’.