Anyone who expected Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino to be AM 2 was always going to be disappointed. After all, this is the band that went from desert rock on Humbug, to 60s guitar pop on Suck it and See and arena riffs and hip-hop beats on AM. But while they’ve always gone from A to B via Z, they’ve really bamboozled us by releasing an album of lounge music from outer space.
With no singles released ahead of the album, pre-release impressions were mostly limited to the cover art, which depicts a cardboard model of a hotel (built by Turner himself and inspired by the lunar Hilton in 2001: A Space Odyssey) sitting on top of a tape machine. It’s a shame that album covers nowadays are mostly experienced through a 5cm x 5cm square of pixels, because the cover on Tranquillty looks great emblazoned over an LP sleeve.
Tranquility is a concept album that finds Turner sitting in a smoke-filled 70s era hotel on the moon in a dystopian near future, tinkling on the ivories and crooning his way through a sci-fi laced stream-of-consciousness exploring themes of technology (“I got sucked into a hole / Through a handheld device?”), religion (“Emergency battery pack just in time for my weekly chat with God on video call”) and politics (“The leader of the free world / Reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks”).
At times recalling Bowie, Bolan, Nick Cave and Phil Spector, Tranquility plays more like an Alex Turner solo record than an Arctic Monkeys album. The infectious hooks of past albums are gone; guitars and drums are used sparingly to make way for pianos and moon-landing era synthesisers (it will be interesting to see how this sound translates to upcoming scheduled shows at the O2 Arena and festivals like Lollapalooza).
This is a significant departure from the ‘Arctic Monkeys sound’ (whatever that even means), and fan and critical reaction has been mixed. Releasing it as a solo album might have dodged some of the criticism the album has received, but credit to Turner and the group for being bold enough to try something completely unexpected, even if it doesn’t always hit the mark.
As an album dominated by Turner, Tranquility is a record that rises and falls on the back of his wordsmanship. At times it hits the mark and listeners will buy into the concept (the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up during this creepily sung line on the title track: “Good afternoon. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino / Mark speaking / Please tell me how may I direct your call?”). But at other times lyrics like “kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob” (what?) will have you reaching for the nearest copy of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.
Anyway, by now you’ve probabky worked out that this is not an album for people who’s enjoyment of Arctic Monkeys usually only extends to cherry-picking the best songs off Spotify. ‘Four Stars Out of Five’ aside, the cupboard is bare for casual listeners. This is an album that has to be listened to as an end-to-end piece of music, not as a collection of individual songs.
A four star rating to match the song name would have been neat, but I can’t quite get there. Ultimately, the Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is three-star hotel. More of a Holiday Inn than a Hilton. Neither the penthouse nor the outhouse, Tranquility is ‘nice’ without being much more.
Best songs: Four Stars Out of Five, American Sports, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino