On Sept. 9, 2013, the music world would be forever changed due to the release of Arctic Monkeys’ critically acclaimed album AM. What followed in its wake was a sudden outpour of praise from newcomers and veteran fans alike. For a time Arctic Monkeys epitomized the classic appeal of contemporary rock bands while still keeping in touch with their old-fashioned roots. However, after only a year of activity following the publication of their fifth studio album, the band decided to take a hiatus. A hiatus that would last nearly three years. We would not hear another new track from the elusive group until the eventual release of their sixth studio album; Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
It’s unclear how to properly describe the album without sounding neurotic. There’s an intricate story being told across the eleven tracks that contain numerous details cleverly interwoven between each other. There are countless obscure allusions, and bizarre non-sequiturs, it’s difficult to take the whole LP in without properly examining them first. The production while familiar at times is a far cry from Arctic Monkeys’ prior outings. Sonically, it’s much more akin to music you would hear at an offbeat bar or lounge, which is a stylistic choice I’m quite fond of, thematically. To me, the album is a cosmic adventure through the copious wistful reflections of, lead singer, Alex Turner, as he drearily sings about “Tranquility Base” a fictional hotel and casino which serves as the record’s main set piece.
“Star Treatment” sets the scene for the narrative of the album while simultaneously establishing the tone. The very first words you hear are Turner moaning a statement teeming with nostalgia,
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes. Now look at the mess you made me make.”
Turner is lamenting the concept of fame itself. He is melancholic as he mournfully speaks of his own popularity whilst satirizing the idolization of celebrities in culture and the media. He continues to add complexity to his jeremiad by interlacing his jaded thoughts with several nods to classic pop culture. One specific allusion Turner makes to the Blade Runner franchise has a very crucial thematic implication.
“They’ve got a film up on the wall and it’s dark enough to dance. What do you mean you’ve never seen Blade Runner?”
The reference to the classic dystopian film makes Turner’s paranoia about society and fame more salient. The film is set in the not so distant future of 2019 and could be a set point for what Turner feels the world is transforming into. The manner in which Turner goes about describing his current fears and regrets implies it’s taking a heavy toll on him. It’s a rather bleak note for the album to begin on and it only escalates as we continue into the next track.
“One Point Perspective” depicts much of the same casual grieving Turner did in the previous track, except with a chief focus on ambition. The main chord progression of the song is beautifully carried along by a grand piano, a very prevalent instrument on the album. The grand piano is regularly referenced as the album progresses and is used as a symbol of childhood. It’s especially important in this track as it coincides with its overall meaning.
“One Point Perspective” marks a breaking point for Turner. All of these melancholic sentiments are inevitably what causes him to abscond to “Tranquility Base.” He feels trapped, marred by the omnipresent constraints of society.
“American Sports” takes place on Tranquility Base and depicts imagery that mostly serves to push the story at hand. He compares the current state of the fictional world he’s into ours implying they’re one and the same. There’s not much else to derive from the song other than the stunning melody played, presumably, by Turner on the piano.
The title track of the album is interesting for two reasons. For one; Turner sounds subdued if not, a bit hypnotized. And secondly; while in this hypnotic state he makes several remarks about space and technology in a sexual matter.
“Technological advances really bloody get me in the mood. Pull me in close on a crisp eve, baby. Kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob”
Turner’s mindless self-indulgence implies there has been sexual assimilation between people and technology on Earth. Showing just how far society has integrated with machinery. The fact he’s able to speak so nonchalantly about such a grim revelation is likely due to his presence at Tranquility Base. It’s also worth noting this far into the review that Tranquility Base is located on the moon. More specifically the site of the first lunar landing, but more on that later.
“Golden Trunks” immediately follows the title track and marks a subtle return to the usual sound and subject matter of Arctic Monkeys. A thunderous guitar illuminates the desolate production and a stabbing piano section repeats in the background set a bit lower in the mix almost as if it doesn’t want to distract from the acoustics. The song is a conversation between Turner and someone he is falling for. It’s about love. A topic almost ubiquitous for the group, however, only explored once on this record. It’s also one song that doesn’t push the underlying narrative.
Track six, “Four Out Of Five” plays almost like an advertisement for Tranquility Base. The whole song is dedicated to enticing the listener into staying at the titular resort. It’s incredibly extravagant and features booming vocals from Turner who ceaselessly sings the praises of the space-bound retreat,
“Take it easy for a little while. Come and stay with us, it’s such an easy flight…I put a taqueria on the roof, it was well reviewed. Four stars out of five. And that’s unheard of”
It’s the most climactic song of the album. Turner has completely convinced himself he belongs to the idyllic, extraterrestrial hostel. It’s almost humorous to hear him so ecstatic about such a common score, like his time there has blinded him from the harsh nature of reality. Perhaps that’s exactly what he wanted in the first place.
The next four songs, “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip”, “Science Fiction”, “She Looks Like Fun”, and “Batphone” all grapple with homologous subject matter. They expound the misuse of technological devices and hold very little substance as far as the narrative is concerned. For this reason and for fear of sounding redundant, I’m skimming over these tracks in this appraisal. However, that doesn’t mean they’re any weaker than the songs I’ve previously mentioned. In fact, “She Looks Like Fun” is one of my favorites on the LP. I just don’t believe they warrant an in-depth look at the moment despite being crucial for one’s overall enjoyment of the album.
“The Ultracheese” is the closer of the record and brings the whole thing full circle. We’re immediately introduced to theme’s equivalent to one’s formerly discussed in “Star Treatment” and “One Point Perspective.” Turner now outwardly expresses his detachment from society and himself. The thematic purpose of Tranquility Base being located at the site of the first lunar landing is also made apparent in this track.
Michael Collins was an astronaut apart of the Apollo 11 crew, alongside the likes of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. In other words, he was part of the very first lunar landing, except in a much more minor role. While Armstrong and Aldrin got to physically walk around on the Moon and make history, Collins had to stay orbiting in the command module so he could link up with them later. As the command module began to circle the far side of the moon, the side that faced away from Earth, he lost all radio contact with Earth, Armstrong, and Aldrin for about 48 minutes. This effectively made him the most lonely a human being has ever been.
I imagine this was the tone Turner was trying to capture when he chose the location for Tranquility Base. It isn’t so much a peaceful retreat as it is a desperate escape. An escape from the bleak reality he has yet to come to terms with. A world dictated by a disturbing reliance on automatons. In some sense that existence may be lonelier than being sequestered on the moon. Perhaps Turner is calling out for help or simply trying to reassure himself. With one final coo from Turner, the album abruptly ends leaving the audience to wonder if he was justified in his irrational accusations of society or if everything he was saying was some sort of depressed, drunken fantasy.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino marks one of the most unexpected but welcome changes of direction I’ve heard from a band in years. It’s incredibly ambitious but I believe none of it was in vain. Alex Turner’s soft vocals work very well in tandem with the loungey production, and space-themed iconography. I’ve been obsessed with this album since its release and I hope that Arctic Monkeys continue to experiment with their sound. Who knows, someday they may just blast off.