Arctic Monkeys have returned after a grueling five-year hiatus that left new and old fans alike waiting to see how they would shake up their sound. Last week, they released “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” a largely unmemorable, moody piano ballad collection which, following the Monkeys’ recent track record, lacks the lyrical or musical ingenuity that blew up their careers back in 2006. “Tranquility Base” is a concept album half-centered on a fictional hotel located on the moon and half-centered in Arctic Monkeys’ frontman Alex Turner’s meditations on living in the spotlight.
Opening track “Star Treatment” is a promising example of the these two halves coming together in unison, as Turner laments the difficulties he’s had with creating new music under the pressure of fans and critics, while also adopting the persona of a once-popular rockstar who is now living out his later years performing residency shows at the Tranquility Base. It sets the musical and lyrical expectations for the rest of the album at a reasonable level, although it is met by only a few of the following tracks.
Take title track “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, the first song that takes on the moon hotel concept full-force. There are definitely lyrics on this track, but they hardly connect to one another through meaning or delivery. Turner obviously wanted to build his imaginary destination with this track, describing several guests and activities at the hotel, but there is no throughline in this song and the track comes off as a string of non sequiturs lazily thrown together in a last-ditch effort to give listeners at least some insight as to the goings-on of the Tranquility Base.
Turner’s vocal performance on this song — and most of the songs on the album — is its biggest detractor. He fully embraces the piano lounge, a melancholic spoken-word aesthetic, sings in strange meters, creates forced rhymes that border on parody and inserts lyrics into the track with no regard to how it actually sounds when he sings it.
On this track in particular, the chorus’ “Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino / Mark speaking / Please, tell me, how may I direct your call?” sounds awkward, with Turner forcing the lyrics into the song rather them growing organically from the track. It’s a campy line delivered with even campier vocals, and the album never fully reveals whether the Arctic Monkeys meant it to be farcical or not.
This flaw is the album’s most glaring, as most tracks end without the satisfying conclusion that the Arctic Monkeys used to be great at. Lyrical love stories end as if they never began, and even the album itself cuts off unexpectedly, ending immediately after Turner coos into the microphone on closing track “The Ultracheese.”
“Golden Trunks” best displays the abrupt endings of the album. The song’s chorus has Turner confessing, “I admit, sometimes I fantasize about you too,” but never evolves the story beyond that. He and his possible lover talk about politics, but there is nothing else written about the person he’s speaking to or why he’s in love with them.
Looking back through their discography at songs like “The Bad Thing” and “Piledriver Waltz” (which both feature narrative throughlines and interesting, cleverly written developments), it’s disappointing to come to a song like this and wonder what could have been had they fleshed out the lyrics as much as they did the ethereal music behind the album.
A couple songs do harken back to the slick writing of their earlier work, such as the aforementioned “The Ultracheese” and its introspective lamentation of the life and people Turner and his companions have since lost to fame and mistakes. It feels like the emotional high-point of the album, and, although its ending is a bit sharp, it’s a fitting end to the tight 40-minute experience. The subject matter it covers as well as its more simplified production style are reminiscent of “A Certain Romance” from “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” another great closing track for a much better record.
Touching briefly on the music on the album, the guitars and drums have been largely subdued to make way for the piano that constantly plays throughout the project. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as songs like “One Point Perspective” feature a very clean integration of piano pinging away in the background as synthesizers and guitars slowly rise for the chorus. However, a solid majority of the songs lack the memorability of the lyrics (for better or worse) and, again, it’s disappointing to see the Arctic Monkeys produce this after seeing what they could do at their best.
To give a concrete number grade, I’d say the record is a 5/10, featuring an interesting concept but failing to capitalize on it at all.