Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino. is not your standard rock album. The album feels more like the score to a thoughtful James Bond movie than a typical Arctic Monkeys album. In fact, like the famous spy himself, the albums finest moments are those in which it leaves almost no trace of itself. With a few notable exceptions, this is not what you’d call “hummable” music. The lyrics are daunting and vague, its slow tempos and nighttime tone change suddenly and its tracks bleed together in a way that makes this record feel more like an artistic experience instead of a simple collection of unconnected songs. Think Pink Floyd’s Animals rather than Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. “Master of Reality—now THAT’S a sick album,” John reminded me.
A loosely swooning concept album at its best and a droning cacophony of dissonant bass lines and stripped down drum tracks at its worst, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino. is easily one of the most intriguing albums I’ve ever listened to. Even after my fifth listen-through I still can’t quite get a bead on it. It’s forgettable, but forgettable in the way you can’t remember a strange dream you’ve had only minutes after waking up, leaving only vague impressions and implanted feelings completely unfamiliar and unconnected to reality. And like a dream you’ve just forgotten, you would give anything to dive right back in to try and make sense of the curious experience.
In the interest of transparency, I must admit to being a fairly big Arctic Monkey’s fan ever since the release of their first album, Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not. Borrowing indie-rock cues from bands like The Strokes and injecting trace amounts of British Invasion-style rhythm, Arctic Monkeys electrified the entire world of rock ’n’ roll by seemingly reinventing the wheel. While remaining heavily grounded in the familiar, the quartet somehow managed to literally invent a brand new genre of rock—one that still lacks adequately specific classification. The closest parallel I can draw to accurately describe the new sound they created would be to invoke the advent of the Fosbury Flop, a high jump technique popularized by American athlete Dick Fosbury in which, rather than straddling the bar face-first as most of his peers did, he would launch himself backwards over the bar, thus lowering his center of gravity, allowing him to jump even higher. Without violating any pre-existing rules, Fosbury changed the face of the entire sport, just as Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not managed to reinvent rock without ever straying outside the lines of the genre. In both cases, it would take true visionary thinking to uncover what was hiding in plain sight the entire time.
But that’s where Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino. differs from its predecessors. In many ways, this album does break the rules. Written largely on piano (rather than guitar), front man Alex Turner confidently explores brand new territory, channeling lounge singer vibes and electric piano-laden slow jams. And as my friend John was quick to point out, this album isn’t going to please everyone. This is an album for the jaded—for those who, simply put, have become somewhat bored with the current state of rock ‘n’ roll.
If you’re anything like me, you live and breathe rock music. You listen to some Zeppelin on your way to the office and Van Halen before going out on a Friday night. You pour through the “recommended for you” section of your Spotify account in hopes of finding exciting new bands almost every day. You even thought about changing the password on your laptop to “geddyleerocks2112” until you realized the dweeb at the Apple store would probably (and, let’s be honest, rightly) call you a nerd. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ve listened to so much rock ’n’ roll throughout your life that you’ve kind of heard it all before. There are only so many power chords you can listen to before everything starts to bleed into everything else. That new Queens of the Stone Age track reminds you of a Dead Weather song, which makes you think of an old Heart track which makes you think of Grace Potter and how her brand of blues-rock reminds you of a song from JET’s second album. Rock is not dead, but at times it can certainly feel like it’s exhausted. And that’s why Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino. succeeds.
If I can leave you with only one bit of advice it would be this: give this strange rock ’n’ roll album a try. I’m not going to go as far as to claim this album will reinvent rock music in any truly significant way, but what it will do is reinvent the way you think about rock music, even if only for a fleeting forty-one minutes. It will challenge you in the way The White Album challenged Please Please Me. It will force you to consider a new perspective on the genre and question not only the current state of rock ’n’ roll, but where it will end up in five, ten, or fifty years time. You’ll hear things you aren’t used to and will perhaps even rattle your Wang Dang Sweet Poontang-honed sensibilities. It won’t answer any questions once it’s over nor will it hold your hand during the scary bits. It will force you to draw your own conclusions. And even if you end up hating it, you’ll only end up finding even more comfort in your old riff-heavy favorites. But spend one night in Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino., and perhaps you too will discover there’s more than one way to make a truly fascinating rock album, and there just might be more to life than riffs.
Illustration by Dan Dinsmore