With ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino,’ the Arctic Monkeys take modern anxiety to the moon

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Grade: 4.5 / 5.0

The night before Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino officially dropped, the Arctic Monkeys played “Four Out of Five” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” As the camera pans onto the band, we notice frontman Alex Turner sitting behind a piano. Piano has never been the cornerstone of how Turner wrote songs in the past — but now, it’s the basis of almost all of Tranquility.

In fact, a lot of things about this album are new. For one, the band didn’t release any singles — evidence enough that this was to be the closest the band might come to a concept album. And boy, what a concept.

Picture in your mind a safe haven for the rich built on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility — right around the spot where Neil Armstrong first set foot. Imagine there’s a dimly lit, all-suede jazz club and cocktail bar, tucked away in this hotel and casino. Imagine a serviceable band playing short sets in the corner, under the din of sleazy conversations.

Painted in loose, open piano chords and flourishes of bass, the opening track “Star Treatment” is enough to invoke that picture in your head all on its own. And over the the album’s 40-minute runtime, we never leave that room — or rather, what it represents.

Tranquility is an album that sticks impressively, and at times frustratingly, to its visual narrative — one wrapped in the interior of a Jean-Pierre Melville-inspired jazz club that, as in “Le Samouraï,” when you pull the camera out far enough, is revealed to be nothing more than a film set (and the since-released music video for “Four Out of Five” features a surreal space with visible camera tracks and lighting rigs).

Sitting in the corner of that club, the Arctic Monkeys’ performance is subdued, Turner’s voice hollowed out and reverbed to the point of near indiscernibility.

But that’s the beauty of the cocktail bar band providing ambient background music: No one is listening to what the chanteur is singing anyway — so Turner sings about the things a performer unhinged from the burden of being heard might sing about.

Indeed, the album’s lyrical forays often feel like pseudo-aimless wanderings, wanderings sometimes directed outward, but more often directed in. At one point, Turner apologizes for losing his train of thought; at another, he details wanting “to make a simple point about peace and love” in a sexy, not-obvious way, but he worries it will end up being too clever for its own good.

It’s a legitimate worry for an album this perplexing. Turner and Co. have always faced the weight of expectations that ride on mega-successful debut albums. The scrappy days of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not are long gone, though. Beer-soaked nightclub fights were filtered album by album into the smooth, sultry confidence of 2013’s AM. Now we’re in another nightclub of sorts. But the confidence — and arrogance — that drips from every groove of an AM vinyl makes its appearances in flashes here, only to be doused and tempered by new admissions of insecurity and doubt.

It’s a portrayal of doubt that, for once, feels authentic. For all the cerebral wordplay, sharp-edged witticisms and “Blade Runner” references, the Arctic Monkeys have actually tackled what’s on everyone’s mind — our social-network culture, rabid politics, technological advancements — but less directly, and less clumsily, than some recent counterparts’ attempts.

The distorted, hidden, half-completed messages that are scattered haphazardly around the jazz club performance don’t necessarily amount to anything. Just like the rest of us, Turner doesn’t have the answers, but his songwriting encodes the anxieties surrounding them through a beautiful conceit.

One might question whether 2018 has room for a retro-future-themed, slow-ballad concept album built around a sci-fi moon base. But the album’s brevity gives it the air of an ephemeral thought — and when taken as one thought, the perplexing, swirling ideas do start to culminate into a bit of a drunken epiphany on the hotel’s rooftop taquería in “Four Out of Five.”

For a band as steeped in mainstream success and festival headlining as the Arctic Monkeys, the decision-making on Tranquility — whether it be writing from piano rather than guitar or even including early-draft vocal recordings from Turner’s home because they hit the moment just right — is refreshingly personal. While the album is already dividing critics and fans alike, the one thing that’s for sure is that when it comes to a new Arctic Monkeys album, whatever people say it’s going to be, that’s what it’s not.

Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.