Arctic Monkeys, ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino': Album Review
Arctic Monkeys made their name by being one of the millennium's best guitar-based rock bands. But for their sixth album, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, they scale back, unplug the amps, roll in the pianos and make a record that turns your preconceived notions of the group upside down.
It's not necessarily a better record than their last one, 2013's AM, but it is a different one, and a shot of reinvigorated inspiration from Alex Turner and his bandmates, who have been trying to live down their excellent 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, ever since it came out.
They start it all with a song that sounds like David Bowie, and also happens to name-drop a popular '00s indie band with its opening line: "I just wanted to be one of the Strokes," Turner sings on "Star Treatment" You get the impression he's not kidding on this bit of self-reflection; it sort of serves as Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino's thematic anchor, next to the science-fiction references that pop up here and there. Arctic Monkeys have become so huge overseas that their reputation has superseded their music. This album – with its piano ballads, flitting sound effects and Turner's Milky Way croon – brings everything back home.
Unlike the previous few Arctic Monkeys albums, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino mostly dispenses with the post-millennium indie rock that defined the band. There's little of their rock 'n' roll swagger here; instead, Turner settles into various Bowie eras (a little Berlin, some Ziggy, plenty of the jazz-inflected tunings that informed Bowie's later records), complete with space-age themes, plus modern-day hip-hop flourishes and some vintage easy-listening from the '60s.
They don't entirely forget to rock 'n' roll. "Four Out of Five" is closer to the Bowie you hear on classic-rock radio than the more experimental Bowie that came later in his career, and "She Looks Like Fun," despite its cheery title, is all dark menace and stinging guitar notes.
Still, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino can't help but sound like a detour for Arctic Monkeys, like Turner's side project the Last Shadow Puppets, but with space-age cocktail music replacing the strings and horns. It certainly gets them out of their comfort zone; even the buzzing guitars of "Golden Trunks" seem to be part of the support crew instead of the main event. And the album flows in a way other Arctic Monkeys records couldn't quite latch onto.
It all sort of leads to the sameness that plagues their other albums. The setting is different this time, and the cast takes on different roles, but the interest levels in their new experiment wane about two-thirds of the way through. Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is a risky move, especially after AM finally gave Arctic Monkeys some headway in the States. And for that they should be commended. But its limitations aren't nearly as boundless as Turner's grand outer-space visions.