Roundtable: Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

by Ellie Turner, Stephen Ong, Taylor Hill, Weihan Tang

PearShaped writers are left with mixed feelings towards Arctic Monkeys' abrupt sonic shift.

 

Ellie Turner:

Arctic Monkeys have always had a knack for changing their sound, whilst still managing to maintain their cool, indie-rock vibe. Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino sees a change in sound once again for the band, one so drastic that it completely rids the album of any Monkeys-esque characteristics. Different doesn’t always mean good, however, as the record proves.

Tranquility Base rids the band of their classic guitar-led tracks and instead places the piano at the centre of the record. It’s a move which has the potential for success, yet instead comes across as clumsy in places: the striking piano chords throughout One Point Perspective prove irritating and unnecessary, rather than the cool, sophisticated vibe Turner was perhaps going for.

There’s a lack of authenticity throughout this album, which is perhaps the reason it doesn’t feel like an Arctic Monkeys record. The album is very focused on Turner and his vocals, for one. Although his vocals do sound better than ever before, the album doesn’t really give any attention to the talents of the rest of the group. Various famous musicians were called in during the recording of Tranquility Base (Tame Impala’s Cam Avery features on She Looks Like Fun), further diluting the authentic Monkeys feel we have previously seen. It feels more like Turner’s solo project than something the whole band have worked on together.

This lack of authenticity is revealed through the lyrics and track names. Where before Turner’s lyrics were quick and sharp, Tranquility seems pretentious and try-hard. Song names like “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip” seem like a bit of a piss-take. There are some gems found throughout, but the stream-of-consciousness narrative generally ends up sounding more like shit-talking than lyrical genius. The album has so much potential, but Turner tries too hard to sound clever that he in fact ends up making no sense – a factor ironically encapsulated within Science Fiction as he sings “So I tried to write a song to make you blush / But I’ve a feeling that the whole thing / May well just end up too clever for its own good”.

Overall, the album isn’t a complete loss. There are some fantastic songs towards the second half, which are almost good enough to make up for the rest of the record. Ultimately, though, if an up and coming band had released this record it would not be as well received as it has been. The fact that it is an Arctic Monkeys’ release is really the only reason I’m forcing myself to listen to it all over again.

Rating: 2.5/5

Picks: Four Out Of Five, She Looks Like Fun, The Ultracheese

 

Stephen Ong:

I’ve been a huge fan of every work that Alex Turner has been involved with – I love all the Arctic Monkeys albums, his Submarine soundtrack, and The Last Shadow Puppets – yet Tranquility Base lacks much of Alex’s charm and the energy we associate with the Arctic Monkeys. Tranquility Base is a deviation in sound for the band, and more divisive than that of the stoner rock of Humbug. Sacrificing guitar riffs for pianos, Tranquility Base feels like the lethargic sequel to the latest Shadow Puppets record Everything You’ve Come to Expect. Turner’s normally introspective lyrics are replaced by croons over hotels and technology, while the rest of the band seems to be missing from over half the record.

Tranquility Base is a grower, like Humbug and Suck It and See, as its layered instrumentation and strange vocal inflections reveal themselves upon each listen. The songs, alien at first, become more enjoyable as they become familiar, with the guitar solo on One Point Perspective and the line, ‘what do you mean you’ve never see Blade Runner?’ on Star Treatment as prime examples.

However, there’s not much here for old Monkeys fans, with Four Out of Five being the sole song built around a guitar riff – every track features the same lounge sound. The guitars, when used, are effective, like in the piano ballad The Ultracheese, featuring a moving guitar solo amongst one of Alex’s best vocal performances as he sings about friendship, calling back to the lyrics of A Certain Romance. The issue is that most tracks lack this emotional edge. Alex’s lyrics come off as even more wordy than before, particularly on Batphone. Otherwise, they try too hard to be fun, with She Looks Like Fun a misstep in the vein of Brick by Brick and Don’t Sit Down.

Fortunately, the experimentation does pay off most of the time. The guitars of American Sports are stellar, The Monster Truck Front Flip recalls Pet Sounds era-Beach Boys, and the descending piano line of Science Fiction is a highlight in an album that rarely shifts out of first gear. The songs are complex, interesting and warm, yet it feels like a wild Alex Turner record without the reins of the band to keep him in check – Matt is absent bar She Looks Like Fun, and Jamie’s contributions seem minimal. Tranquility Base’s position in the band’s discography seems to be as the reflective sequel to the drunken guitar anthems of the band’s youth.

Rating: 4/5

Picks: One Point Perspective, The Ultracheese, Four Out of Five

 

Taylor Hill:

It’s been a five-year wait for this album, and I must admit: I was expecting an AM Part 2 – an album I wasn’t at all really struck on anyway, so a continuation of this would have been disappointing. Instead, we got what felt like an experimental continuation of The Last Shadow Puppets’ Everything You’ve Come To Expect. While its sound is very different to what you would face value from an Arctic Monkeys album, it’s also very much the same.

It raises the question of what does it really mean to be different? Lyrically at its peak, they’re very, VERY literal. I mean, he’s literally speaking as a receptionist in the album’s eponymous track, and what the hell does data storage even sound like? It’s interesting stuff, and I think the abstract imagery is the album’s strong point. Ultimately, I’m approaching it with the mindset of ‘if this album was to be made by anybody else but the Arctic Monkeys, would I still like/listen to it?’, to which, it would probably be a resounding no.

I don’t think it’s a weird or avant-garde album so to speak; there have been bands emulating this sort of sound for years (Temples are a good shout). Some of Turner’s flowery lyrics made me smile; I also like how some of the tone choices reflect the kind of music you’d hear in a jazzy casino, particularly in the album’s opening seconds, which would definitely reflect the album’s title. The textures are cumbersome on occasion, but it makes for some pleasant headphone listening.

Structurally, it’s very ambivalent: some song can feel as though they just meander on with nothing to latch on to, whereas Four Out Of Five – the album’s best track in my opinion – has a light verse, chorus, verse, bridge etc. structure. But the for me, the primary issue with this album is it’s just not very interesting, and I revisit the fact that I wouldn’t have probably given it a chance if were any other band, which is a critical factor in my rating.

While this album clearly shows insane technological advancements since their debut album, it’s devoid of the band’s energy and doesn’t utilise the full strengths of Matt Helders. In fact, an additional nine musicians have been credited with having some involvement on this album. It’s almost as though the Arctic Monkeys are trying to become Sheffield’s ELO but, I can assure you, Birmingham do it better.

Rating: 2.5/5

Picks: Four Out Of Five, Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, The Ultracheese

 

Weihan Tang:

Each time the Arctic Monkeys release an album, it almost feels like they enter a new era. Tranquility Base is no exception. Though it may come as a surprise, and perhaps a little confusing for fans used to their usual rousing rock ballads, this recent album nevertheless offers politically charged, funk laced tunes taken apart to a bare minimum that’s a pleasant listen.

The new album’s taken quite a bit further than the crooning love songs of 2013s AM era. Opening up Star Treatment in homage to New York rock group The Strokes, its as introspective as Turner and company have ever gotten. Alongside this newfound broodiness, you have the politically charged messages about the current state of social media underscored by a general retro science fiction motif. Indeed, this album has much more of a thematic coherence than others. There’s a very prevalent use of piano as the principal instrument (as opposed to guitar) in every song, and it does a wonderful job of tying each piece together.

Yet there never really is a song that’s on the same level as Fireside, or Library Pictures both tunes that shook up the tempo of their respective albums. Tranquility Base can feel at times, if you’re listening through it all in one go, a little grey and flat. That’s not to say the tracks don’t individually shine. They do, and very much so. Four out of Five particularly, with its thick bass, as well as the final tune The Ultracheese (that harkens back to No 1 Party Anthem’s laid back piano riffs) are both examples that they haven’t lost any of their sonic showmanship.

Summed up as succinctly as possible, this album would be considered a retrospective, whether it be looking back at the path the group has taken over the years, or writing a song about the deeper implications of a monster truck doing a frankly impressive front flip. Its great to watch, and hear the Monkeys evolve and experiment.

Rating: 3.5/5

Picks: Four out of five, The Ultracheese

 

Rating: 3.1/5