It Takes Effort – “Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino” Review

I originally had a different idea for this week’s post, but after I realized that Arctic Monkeys’ new album “Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino” was going to be released this week, I dropped everything to write a review of it.

This is Arctic Monkeys’ first album since their 2013 hit “AM.” I was introduced to the band by that album, like many people were, charmed by their swagger-filled alt rock sound behind the crooning, smooth vocals of lead singer Alex Turner. “AM,” I think, is a fantastic primer to the band’s work, accessible, catchy, and instantly understandable. I love “AM.”

This album is not “AM,” though.

When I first listened to it, I was admittedly a little disappointed, though I couldn’t place exactly what about the album was disappointing me. And then it hit me. It wasn’t “AM.” It wasn’t even attempting to be “AM.”

See, turning on “AM,” you’re immediately struck with the full, easily likable force of pop rock with a dash of 50s retro. No effort is involved at all, you just gotta sit back, relax, and let the energetic music wash over you. “Tranqulity Base Hotel and Casino” is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

You cannot fully appreciate this album on your first listen. You simply cannot. There’s just too much going on in it – the sound is quieter and subtler. It doesn’t come out and smack you in the face with sound. It’s a concept album with a lot of depth to it.

And now, on my third listen of this album, I can definitively say that it’s a lot better than I thought on the first listen. I understand that this album is not for everyone, but I’m a little irked by the people I’ve seen calling this objectively bad because it doesn’t have the same sound “AM” did. It’s not my favorite album by Arctic Monkeys, but it’s also newer to me than any of them, and in the few listens I’ve gone through it’s already getting better and better.

There are a couple of themes at work in this album. The first, and most obvious, is the Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino itself – the fictional place. It’s not explained fully, but it seems many of the songs take place in a fictional lunar hotel and casino, styled in 70s rock star glam. There’s been some sort of exodus from Earth to the Moon, and the songs in the album document how the people in this situation live their lives.

That story, however, seems to be an allegory for modern technological processes and the anxieties that come along with that. Many of the songs concern themselves with the ways social media and handheld devices have changed how we interact with each other and with the world. But ultimately I think even that is an allegory for how the band has changed.

Just looking to the lyrics of the first and last tracks of this album, it’s obvious that Alex Turner is relating our modern-day technological progress and anxieties to his own progress and anxieties. The first line of “Star Treatment,” after all, is “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” launching from that rumination of where he began to a lament on how fame has changed him. And the final song, “The Ultracheese,” has lyrical callbacks to “That’s Where You’re Wrong” and “Piledriver Waltz” from “Suck it and See,” the album immediately before “AM,” and immediately before this band really hit it big. (I also think it sounds a lot like “Piledriver Waltz,” with a slow, contemplative 3-beat structure).

I love how all of those themes are connected throughout the album. The slower-paced, retro sound could certainly go along with that too – a certain longing for the days when that progress and technology didn’t exist. At the same time, there’s a certain futuristic, sci-fi vibe to this album that also looks forward. Don’t believe what so many of the Genius annotations about this album say – this album is not entirely doom and gloom on the state of technology. Well… okay, it is a little, but there’s other stuff going on as well.

I can’t say I love every part of this album. Like many, I was a little turned off by the fact all of the first few songs are ambling and slow, with Alex Turner just sort of monolouging over top of it. A few listens later and it’s better, in that I can see how it fits into the album as a whole, but I’m still not sure I would sit down and listen to any of these songs on their own.

I think once the album gets to “Golden Trunks,” I finally start to hear a little energy. The gritty guitar sound pops through the sleepy sound the album has established so far, and caught my attention. By the time “Four Out of Five” rolled around, I was into it.

I will say that some of the critique of this album feeling more like an Alex Turner solo project than an album by all four members of the band is valid. Though it makes sense that Turner’s influence is heard more loudly than the other members’ – this was, after all, his first foray into producing the band’s music as well as writing it – it’s more than a little disappointing.

Don’t get me wrong, I like his style a lot, and I think he shaped this album into an artistic and subtle work, but it doesn’t always utilize the talents of his fellow bandmates. I found myself longing for one track that wasn’t a slow dirge so I could hear Matt Helders’ incredible drumming skills on display, or a little more of the fast-paced guitar and bass work of Jamie Cook and Nick O’Malley. I found a lot of the things I loved about this album, like the concept and the lyrics, are Turner’s work, and that was a little sad.

Still, I suspect this album will continue to grow on me as I return to it. I would say my favorite tracks as of right now are “Four Out of Five,” “The First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip,” and “The Ultracheese.”

So when you see the clickbait-y headlines declaring this album an embarrassing failure, or the Twitter “music experts” unable to understand that some people may have tastes and opinions different than theirs, don’t believe the hype. Give this album a listen. And then give it a second, and a third. You might be surprised to find it’s a surprisingly pleasant listen, with a tight message and well-done writing.

Or, if not, go back and listen to “AM” again. It’s a pretty good listen, too.

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