Album Review: Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

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 machineIt’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”). 

Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

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

Concert Review: Arctic Monkeys

Brisbane Entertainment Centre, May 6, 2014

The first time I saw the Arctic Monkeys play was on their first Australian tour, eight years ago. That concert at the Arena can’t have lasted 45 minutes – they only played about 12 songs, barely stopping to breathe – but it was so frantic and so thrilling that it remains one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen.

I was at the Tivoli a year later too, this time seeing the group support their follow-up album, Favourite Worst Nightmare. That concert reached the same stratospheric heights as the first, but by the next two (Perth Big Day Out 2009 and at the Riverstage in 2012), much of that spark had gone. They were not bad, but the energy and intensity, fuelled by songs about scummy men and topshop princesses, had gone firmly M.I.A.

Even though I absolutely dig their latest album, those less than stellar shows (as well as some recent comments by one of their overseas supporting acts criticising their live show), meant that I barely gave the concert a second’s thought until I walked through the Brisbane Entertainment Centre doors. After all, as the band themselves once said, anticipation has a habit to set you up ….

I’m happy to say that my lack of enthusiasm was misplaced. It’s official. Alex, Nick, Jamie and Matt have got their live mojo back. It might have taken 3 albums and 5 years, but they’ve finally been able to make that transition from thrilling 1,000 people in a tiny little club venue to captivating 10,000 in a cavernous arena like the BEC.

But before Arctic Monkeys, Perth’s Pond play a short support set. If you’ve not heard of Pond, they are like a ‘druggier Tame Impala’ – the Tame Impala connection coming as no surprise given Pond’s lineup includes two past or former Tame Impala members. Most of the under-18 crowd are still outside slurping on post-mix cokes, but those inside are treated to a set laden with Sabbath-riffs and ‘Lucy in the Sky’ psychedelia.

After a short break, those huge, almost hip-hop sounding beats of ‘Do I Wanna Know’ fill the Entertainment Centre as giant lit-up ‘A’ and ‘M’ letters pulsate in the background and the crowd erupts. Turner starts singing … Have you got colour in your cheeks? Do you ever get that fear that you can’t shift…. adding to the absolute cacophony of noise. Already – in literally seconds – it’s obvious this is a return to form. They’re here to put on a show – not just a faithful but somewhat bland re-creation of their music.

Arctic Monkeys
Get on your dancing shoes…

‘Do I Wanna Know’ is followed by ‘Snap Out of it’ and ‘Arabella’, two more from AM — songs from which are easily the best received all night. That isn’t all together surprising given that half the venue was probably still listening to  the Wiggles when What People Say… came out, but it’s also a reflection of just how popular AM is.

All in all, nine songs from AM get an airing, but that still leaves room for a career retrospective that recalls many of their career high-points.. … ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ and ‘Brianstorm’ to name a couple, as well as that seminal Arctic Monkeys hit, ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’.

In addition to amping up their ‘show’ with an impressive lights and a big sound augmented by a fifth band member on keys and guitar, the other big improvement is Alex Turner’s revised stage persona. He’s being himself again. Gone are those generic cut and paste ‘Brisbane you’re the best’ lines, replaced by something somewhere between cripplingly shy and arrogant. Whatever it is, it feels genuine.

The encore begins with ‘One For the Road’ before a gorgeous rendition of’ I Wanna Be Yours’, complete with an ocean of audience mobile phone lights bobbing up and down (a spontaneous audience moment, or something that happens at every show? I don’t know. Very cool, though). Finally, Alex Turner steps up to the microphone and asks the question everyone has been waiting for… R U Mine? We R, but the PA goes out mid-song, and the crowd are left to carry the song as the band ‘mime’ along without any amplification. “Let’s try that again, shall we?” says Turner, and we get to be theirs once more.

Setlist

Do I Wanna Know?
Snap Out of It
Arabella
Brianstorm
Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair
Dancing Shoes
Library Pictures
Crying Lightning
Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?
Fireside
I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
She’s Thunderstorms
No. 1 Party Anthem
Cornerstone
Knee Socks
Fluorescent Adolescent
505
Encore:
One for the Road
I Wanna Be Yours
R U Mine? (P.A cut out)
R U Mine? (re-played)