Thursday, May 24, 2018

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino - Arctic Monkeys

It's always interesting when a band takes an extended time to put out a new record. With a gap of two or three years, most shifts and changes in musical sound are expected and predictable. When you start to get into the five years or more mark, things become a little less clear. People can change a lot in a year, so five years between one release and another can see a band or artist go through multiple changes. When the Arctic Monkeys released their last album, AM, in 2013, they were on top of the alternative rock world. With huge singles like "Do I Wanna Know?" & "R U Mine?", the band sat atop the charts and received much critical acclaim for a little while before taking a two year hiatus.

When the band finally came back together and recorded, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was the result; and boy, was it across the galaxy in terms of differences from their previous sound. Gone the gritty guitars and crashing drums, gone the rock n' roll and alternative swagger, replaced with echoing piano chords, brooding bass lines, and Alex Turner's vocals switching for high & soaring to a low, almost talking-tone of a weary storyteller. You can easily hear the influences of David Bowie & Leonard Cohen in different aspects of the music.

Not only is this album light-years away from it's predecessors, it transports the listener to a place and time far from the modern world. I find myself flying to a bar, smoky and dimly lit, located on the edge of an astroid field where characters from all over the galaxy come to trade stories and have a quiet drink with a view of the stars. It creates an atmosphere that is totally it's own, with a history waiting to be discovered.

I'll be totally honest and say that this album took a few listens. With a shift in sound and direction like this, it was bound to be polarizing amongst listeners, and I was almost confused upon my first listen through the album. I was expecting a follow up to match the intensity and energy of AM, and found the band had moved in the opposite direction. But the more I listened to the album, the more I found myself coming back again and again and again. Since it's release, I've listened to it at least once a day from start to finish, if not two or three or more times. It's so unique in the scope and concept, I can't get enough of it.

It's difficult to talk about the songs individually - it feels like looking at just one part of a larger picture. Obviously they each differ and have their own specific sound, but at the same time they all work off of a similar sound pallet, creating a seamless experience from start to finish. When I listen to it, I have a hard time shuffling it or hearing songs by themselves in a playlist. It feels like it's meant to be together, it's meant to be experienced in a manner which is not as common anymore. Labels market singles, they want that smash song that people will get sick of on the radio. People buy songs individually more often than by the album, so to create a piece of art that demands to be listened to in it's entirety is a bold move.

The theme reminds me a lot of retro science fiction; stories from the era of Issac Asimov and Ray Bradbury where the future teetered between the sides of glimmering, shiny hope and the dark, brooding pessimism. It's not quite as serious and dystopian as sci-fi has generally become, but it clearly reveals that something is not quite right - an inkling of a suspicion, a hint that someone or something is lurking, waiting for the right moment to be revealed. This is a galaxy of opportunity, both reputable and not, probably riding closer to the science side than the fiction. There isn't as much myth to this place, nothing like Star Wars; closer to Star Trek, but a tad bit darker and less optimistic. 

Lyrically, it feels a bit more abstract than AM. For me, that might have been an issue years ago - I liked it when I could decipher what I was listening to and find a meaning. With time, I'm sure I'll be able to grasp some of what Turner is crooning about. But for now, I'm just fine without knowing - it feels as though I don't have to focus on the words and let the overall sound wash over me, taking me to this unknown world I have yet to fully discover. There definitely are lines that I thoroughly enjoy - take this one from "Star Treatment":

"So who you gonna call?
The Martini Police"

Something about the way Turner delivers the line makes it so amusing & mocking of the intended target - someone who seems to be snobby or uptight about ridiculous things.

Another fun set of lines lies farther along in the song:

"I just wanted to be one of those ghosts
You thought that you could forget
And then I haunt you via the rear view mirror
On a long drive from the back seat".

It's a strangely relatable line - at least for those of us who are perhaps a little more paranoid or fearful of that which lurks in the dark. The imagery of a lingering lover as a ghost somewhat out of reach, but on the edge of awareness.

This album truly is a masterpiece - a well crafted work of art that manages to acknowledge the past while looking forward. The way in which the music creates it's own physically manifestation is the most remarkable aspect; something that I know will keep me coming back for more and inspiring me in my own work.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended: "Star Treatment", "Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino", and "She Looks Like Fun"

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