Saturday, May 12, 2018

Thoughts On Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

So yesterday, the Arctic Monkeys released their latest album called Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. People who have been reading this blog since the very beginning would know that I am a huge Arctic Monkeys fan. So much so that I even named the blog after their first album. In this post, I shall share my thoughts about their latest studio release after listening to it on loop for the past 30 hours.

We first received word about the album when the Monkeys released promotional material concerning the album about a month and a half before the album dropped. When I found out that it was going to be named Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, I got excited. I liked the fact that it was a name of a place, which hinted that the album might well be a concept album (and I like me some concept albums). I thought that it would be a collection of songs telling stories about the goings on in this mysterious hotel, and they pretty much delivered on that count, just not in the way that I had expected them to, as I’ll discuss later in this post.

But before that, I’d also like to recount that a few recordings from a closed live-show pre-album-launch got on Youtube and I checked them out to see what I might be able to expect from the album. I only listened to them once, and the vibe I got was that it was a movement towards slower tunes, closer to the ones presented on Turner’s side-project The Last Shadow Puppets’ latest studio release. I was also reminded of Cornerstone, for some reason, and that excited me since Cornerstone was one of my very favourite Monkeys songs. 

After my first listen in my car on the way back to Selangor from Johor, I thought to myself, “This will be the most difficult Arctic Monkeys album to listen to yet.” I didn’t get it. I thought Turner had traded in his ability to write catchy melodies with more drab and matter-of-fact tones. No particular lines jumped up at me either. Nothing quite as memorable as “He’s struggling the notion that it’s life, not film,” or “I’m sure that you’re still breaking hearts with the efficiency that only youth can harness.” The sounds weren’t urgent, drums were as minimal as can be, guitars as sparse as it has ever been on any Arctic Monkeys record, with only the bass doing some interesting things every now and again. I sighed and pressed the bridge of my nose by the end of the album.

They had certainly delivered in one trademark Arctic Monkeys department, which was making sure that no two albums sounded the same. This was certainly one of the main appeals to the band, in my opinion, and part of why I like the band so much. I always liked that they always wanted to grow and do different things with every full-length release. But after the first listen to Tranquility Base, I was now asking, “Had they changed to something I now disliked?”

As with most albums I listen to, I cannot trust my first listens of albums all that much. There have been plenty of albums in the past that I grew to love over time (Kendrick Lamar’s GKMC took me three-months to properly “get” and now it’s one of my very favourite albums of all time). So I persisted. I knew there was something I didn’t “get” yet about the album. And I sought to find out what that was.

I was surprised to learn that I started enjoying some of the songs in Tranquility as soon as I played it the second time. I found myself nodding my head to Star Treatment and swinging my hips to Four Out Of Five during my bathroom break at the Machap RnR. This was encouraging. I still didn’t quite get anything about the album at all, but I was more and more acclimatising to the sounds presented on the album and found them to be enjoyable, if on the slower side of my preferences.

When I got back home, I listened to an interview Alex did with BBC Radio 1 about the album and what they were trying to do on it. The interviewer, Annie Mac asked interesting questions and I gained a better insight into what the album was about. For example, I found out that the Hotel was on the moon (whaaa??) and how social media tied into the album.

On my next listen, I did what I only do with albums from artists I care about: I listened to the whole album while having the lyrics in front of me. It proved to be a great move for me in improving my enjoyment of the album by many folds. I now see that the whole album is set on the moon, with markers such as “So when you gaze at planet Earth from outer space, does it wipe that stupid look off of your face?” in American Sports, and “Cute new places keep popping up around Clavius,” in Four Out Of Five, with Clavius being one of the largest craters on the moon. Indeed, the title of the album itself should have alerted me to this fact, since Tranquility Base is the site on the moon where Armstrong landed back in 1969. I was just ignorant to this fact before looking at the Genius page.

Besides being on the moon, another aspect that I admire about the album now is its critique of our infatuation with technology and social media and how Alex talks about how it affects people’s lives on the moon. “Still got pictures of friends on the wall, I suppose we aren’t really friends anymore. Maybe I shouldn’t ever have called that thing friendly at all,” Alex muses on The Ultracheese. He even seems angry in She Looks Like Fun where he says “There ain’t no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be.” 

In the interview I talked about earlier, Alex said that he somehow felt that writing Tranquility Base felt like writing the first album, only he couldn’t quite put his finger on how they were similar. If I had to hazard a guess, I would submit that in both albums he was singing through the eyes of a persona who is in a singular, specific place. In Whatever You Say I Am, the persona is talking about his thoughts and the goings-on around Sheffield, whereas in Tranquility Base, the persona is speaking about this imaginary world on the moon with a taqueria on the roof. This is different from the other albums, where there wasn’t quite the specificity of location consistent throughout the individual albums. 

I’ll end by concluding that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is Arctic Monkeys’ most ambitious album to date. It is a concept album in the sense that the whole album is set in a specific place and tells stories relevant to the place. It’s not quite as cinematic as Kendrick’s GKMC, nor does it (in my opinion) pull off the no-guitars rule as well as Mountain Goats’ Goths. It’s not the easiest of listens, and it doesn’t have a standout “hit single” in the discography, so I think this will be their least popular album so far.

But I’m still proud of the boys for being brave in their musical choices. They’ve never failed to reinvent themselves with each album, and they’ve continued to do that with this one. Even though I had every reason to expect them to change up their sound, I never thought it would be as drastic and radical. I like that they can still surprise long time listeners such as myself. I am going to continue listening to this album for a while, and while it may not be in my top 4 Arctic Monkeys’ favourite albums, I still cherish it and continue to be a fan.

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