A new concept album has come out, awash with glam rock and glittery existentialism. It may not be the eighties, but you wouldn’t know it from the music. Fortunately for Arctic Monkeys, given the recent wave of '80s nostalgia, they may have timed their surprising and daring change in direction at just the right moment.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is nothing like anything Arctic Monkeys has done before. It is, however, like things other bands have done. It’s particularly impossible not to be reminded of David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust in the face of this concept album, full of science fiction, rockstars and droopy, whispering vocals. Early in a first listen, it’s easy to wonder whether Arctic Monkeys are trying to pick up a mantle that most modern musical culture has already abandoned.
Luckily, the album proves to be a feat of its own, coming into itself with an array of darkly whimsical space rock. “Golden Trunks” is pleasantly choral, and the layered but catchy pop of “Four Out Of Five” is only bolstered by creative images like “special effects of my mind’s eye.” The lyrics album-wide, while generally strong, aren’t quite as consistently airtight as they have been on some of Alex Turner’s previous work, but they do play a crucial role both in creating some of the album’s central confusions and in helping to untangle that web later on.
The pesky question of genuineness also bubbles up a few more times throughout the album’s 11-track span: After all, the band isn’t quite old enough yet to be washed-out and mopey, but in many of the songs here, they are anyway. But one has to give the layers of the music due credit, and between the sweeping, hypnotic backgrounds and loungey vocals, there is a genuine message here that promises that Arctic Monkeys is nowhere near done being edgy, creative and above all — exploratory.
One of the things that Tranquility Base does right is that it grounds itself fully in its own foundations. As a concept album and as a work of science fiction, it completely hits the mark. The album is colored with the aloof skepticism that, beneath the surface, characterizes science fiction as a genre. It’s a lush dive into imagination coupled with an on-guard wariness of the future, the rest of humanity and the vast and lonely reaches of the world.
The album also makes good use of its chosen vantage point: A hotel and casino on the moon. The setting of outer space invites a range of perspectives, from the inward to the literally astronomical, and in the midst of a dreamy, druggy environment — a fitting canvas for space — Arctic Monkeys make an effort to explore them all. Sometimes this is to a fault — songs like the dread-infused “She Looks Like Fun” teeter on the verge of being muddled and directionless, and “One Point Perspective” is so incomprehensible that even the narrator himself admits, “Bear with me, man, I’ve lost my train of thought,” by the end. However, this same lyric also confirms the album’s self-awareness: For the most part, the sprawling confusion feels intentional, and the various directions being explored ultimately do lead up to a jointed and unified end.
The meaning of the album can perhaps best be accessed through its final track, “The Ultracheese.” The preceding tracks are often showy or occupied with themes of entertainment, from music to cinema, but this is where the trajectory finally becomes clear and the work climbs to a genuine end. Revelations like, “I’ve still got pictures of friends on the wall / I might look as if I’m deep in thought / But the truth is I’m probably not,” expose the gaps in the narrator’s own dramatic, attractive façades of fame. This final narrator questions the authenticity of past friendships and laments the doomed simplicity of “Just trying to orbit the sun / … Just trying to be kind to someone,” allowing the album to stretch back toward a kind of societal truth linked with humble self-acknowledgment.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino may be bereft of a lot of the unapologetic verve that made earlier records like AM so electrifying and fresh, but it replaces this sentiment with a new (and more helpful) axis from which to understand the band. Arctic Monkeys can’t keep putting out the same witty dancefloor poems over and over again, and lucky for us, they don’t seem like they want to. Although the album does sometimes veer into the sort of nettling pretension that makes fellow artists like Father John Misty stand out in a bad way, it is held together by a well crafted and ultimately clever story of fame, alienation and spectacle.