Five years is a long, long time. Five years ago, Arctic Monkeys elevated themselves to the very top of the charts with AM, a record full of amazing singles, with an instantly recognizable sound and top-class songwrtiting. The media buzz surrounding this TBH&C was understandably huge, and the band could easily take the easy step and cash it in just by replicating the sound of their previous record. But Arctic Monkeys are not your average band. They take risks, and constantly look for new musical ideas. That’s what made Tranquility Base so divisive. And that’s what made it so great.
Gone is the post-punk grit of their first two albums, gone is the sunshine pop of Suck It And See, and gone is the blues-meets-R&B approach of AM. There are some traces of the desert psychedelia that dominated Humbug, but Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino feels like something entirely different, almost out of this planet. To be more precise, like something from the Moon. This is basically a concept album, revolving around the titular hotel, located at the site of the first Moon landing. And from this luxurious lunar establishment Alex Turner looks down on Earth and reflects on technology, politics, lifestyle and the price of fame. Of course we all knew that Turner is one of the finest wordsmiths in music today, but this record really sees him at the pinnacle of his lyrical prowess. Clever metaphores and wordplay, popculture references (both obvious and obscure) – it’s all here, and it’s better than ever. It’s a surprisingly personal album, with Alex sometimes being very honest and self-critical (I’m so full of shite/I need to spend less time stood around in bars/waffling on to strangers all about martial arts). But that doesn’t mean it’s all that serious – there’s plenty of his trademark tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, and even a hillarious jab at Trump in Golden Trunks.
And here we reach the main talking point with this album: its main focus is on Turner: his lyrics and vocals. The rest of the band had a very difficult role: to provide great instrumentals without stealing the spotlight or being reduced to the role of a backing band. Luckily, they are more than capable of that (even though I still think that Matt Helders’ extraordinary drumming skills are criminally underused here). The music here is spaced out, full of little details that may not be obvious on the first listen, but make you appreciate the album even more with each and every listen.
But to be fair, I kinda understand the people complainig, cause it’s not an easy album, and the 180 volta they pulled off here might be tough to swallow for some fans: very little of their trademark hard-hitting riffs here, no galloping drums, and a lack of evident hit singles (maybe with the exception of Four Out of Five, which has a beautiful chorus that leads to a pretty chaotic crescendo). But to be fair, that is the strenght of this album. While AM was a collection of potential hit singles, Tranquility Base is one, cohesive album, that sounds best when you listen to it in its entirety, completely focused. The space-lounge feel of the opener Star Treatment may be weird, but it also promises great things. And great things follow, indeed. There are a lot of glam-era David Bowie influences (the title track!), as well as some Sgt. Pepper’s (The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip) and of course The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, in terms of the intricate production. But the record feels thoroughly modern, or even futuristic, and it’s not just because of the concept. Tracks like Golden Trunks or She Looks Like Fun are unlike anything I’ve ever heard.
After first listen, I felt really dissapointed. After three, I was beginning to see great potential. Now, after 10+ listens I know that it’s a special record. One of those record that are almost perfect from the beginning to the end (alright, I’m not quite sold on Batphone yet). It’s a complex and challenging record that rewards a patient listener. Arctic Monkeys have matured. And now there’s no doubt they’re the most important band of the decade.