An Extended Stay at the Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino
“Now look at the mess you made me make” — The second line of the first track, “Star Treatment” off the Arctic Monkeys’ latest record was just one of the fervidly self-referential lyrics which was lost to me upon my first listen. I was spread out in the rarely used hammock in the shadows of my parents’ backyard. The night after Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’s release, I had slipped outside once my family was well-asleep to meditate with undivided attention on my favorite lyricist’s latest writings.
However, my long-brewing expectations for the album kept me from realizing how fitting my setting was that night in the darkness, my childhood suburb moonlit and perfectly calm (without the screams of my incredibly loud kid neighbors to disturb me for once). I was unsettled by Alex Turner’s thick and chilling voice, and — I’m embarrassed now to admit — disappointed by the strange eeriness of it all. Not unlike many longtime fans of the group, I had been hoping for a revival of their old sound, but instead received confusing stream-of-consciousness words from a seemingly maddened musician. Regrettably, I abandoned the album a few songs in, not finding the sacrifice of sleep then was worth being exhausted the next morning.
Fortunately, my job painting dorms full time this summer has allowed me ample time to give the record the contemplation it deserves. Bored by the tedium of slathering paint over disgusting college walls and having already exhausted my library of saved podcasts and audiobooks, I pushed myself through the album again and again until eventually the amount of vocal reverb and the lounge style piano playing was no longer obnoxious and frustrating, but stunning, and I was starting to make sense of the mess of lyrics and realizing what a thoughtful work the singer has created.
Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is charged with references to politics, religion, and the cheapening of life due to technological advances, while still remaining largely introspective and autobiographical of an artist’s struggles with fame, and Turner composed the songs on a piano alone in a room with only a microphone and a tape recorder. Based on the fact that the band decided not to release any singles prior to the whole album debut, it seems apparent to me that Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is meant to be played in order and consumed all at once. The album is named after the historical site where the Apollo 11 crew members first made contact with the moon, and throughout its progression, the singer constructs a narrative of a dystopian moon colony that is reinforced by haunting and surreal instrumental sound. It shares an artist’s perspective on life that is ominous, moody, and definitely raw.
Here’s a closer look:
The first song opens with the punchy line, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” setting the listener up for Turner’s ruminations on the unintended direction of his life. The next line, and first words of this article, reveals the songwriter’s intentions for the album to an extent. His blunt reference of the album as a “mess” suggests that it was intended to surprise and confuse fans, with its dark 80’s rock sound and rambling lyrics. I find it interesting how accusatory that line is, seemingly blaming certain fans for his descent into this sort of mild madness. The song goes on to explain in an echoing voice that the singer felt lost in fame after the success of the band’s previous album, AM, leaving him in “bad shape.” The narrator finds himself on a path of self-discovery, hitchhiking “miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway,” presumably alluding the Arctic Monkeys’ 2007 song “505” and suggesting that he is far from the person he was in his youth.
The last lines of the first verse, “Everybody’s on a barge / floating down the endless stream of great TV / 1984, 2019” are a commentary on the state of society today, hopelessly consumed by online television streaming and other visual media, the two dates referencing George Orwell’s novel and the dystopian film noir Blade Runner respectively. A bit unrelated to the previously mentioned lines, but the album is definitely an unorganized patchwork of thoughts.
The singer expands on the struggles with celebrity mentioned in “Star Treatment” in the second verse of this song with the lyric “the chimes of freedom fell to bits.” It is well known that AM received great criticism from the band’s fanbase, making Turner feel creatively restricted, like he owed a certain sound to the supporters which brought him into fame in the first place (when an artist’s work really should not be influenced by his or her consumers). Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is a powerful stand against that lack of freedom, being the band’s most experimental album yet. As Pitchfork writer Jazz Monroe states in his review, “Barely anything here invites casual consumption. There is plenty that actively resists it, and that’s probably the point.” From reading other reviews, some seem to think this record should not have been released under the Arctic Monkeys’ name and perhaps Alex Turner’s instead, but the message of the work would have been greatly weakened. In a way, it feels like Turner is trying to shake bandwagon fans and return to the time before the commercial success of AM, as well as his mistaken persona which he realizes with the line “I lost my train of thought,” steered him away from his original ambitions. This song is one of the more instrumentally playful off the album with high, staccato piano chords accompanying the vocals.
This next song continues the narrative of a man “gaz[ing] at planet Earth from outer space” and sounds like something straight out of a retro space adventure film. The singer reveals his aversion to current-day politics mentioning the American battleground states which receive unfair attention and allow large sections of the country to be ignored completely. The chorus line “Can I please have my money back? / My virtual reality mask is stuck on ‘Parliament brawl’” is one of my favorites as it is loaded with the frightening reality of the world today. We’ve begun to don VR masks to augment or avoid real life and the apathetic speaker asks for a refund on his because he doesn’t care to be bothered by government conflict. In the song’s second verse, Turner speaks to the disheartening abundance of “fake news” today with the lyric “Breaking news, they take the truth and make it fluid.”
The title track features another powerfully meta line which continues to reveal more about the writer’s mental state and process, as he sings “I ponder all the questions and just manage to miss the mark.” The whole album is Turner’s thoughts about the current state of the world with religion, politics, and technology, but he feels like he isn’t able to communicate his feelings properly. He can’t find the words. But one thing that is clear: his cynicism and disappointment, especially with the lines “Do you remember where it all went wrong? / Technological advancements really bloody get me in the mood.” His tongue-in-cheek sexualization of technology is meant to emphasize the effects technology is having on human interaction.
This bass-heavy song is more than likely describing Donald Trump in the second verse: “The leader of the free world / Reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks / He’s got himself a theme tune / They play it for him as he makes his way to the ring.” Here Turner is portraying Trump as a performer in some sort of dramatic wrestling match, rather than a politician. His frustration with the immature media is ever more clear with the later lyric, “Bendable figures with a fresh pack of lies.”
The lead single of the record declared post-release is the closest any track gets to what I think we were initially expecting from this album. But, its relative upbeatness is overshadowed by a chorus that sings, “It’s all getting gentrified,” bringing the track back down to match the darkness of the rest of the collection. Again, the theme of media consumption obsession is prevalent with the opening words, “Advertise in imaginative ways, start your free trial today.” The song itself is a satirical advertisement for the Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, urging the listener to “Come stay with us.” A new taqueria has opened on the luxury moon colony and the restaurant has “four stars out of five.”
The heaviest song as far as commentary on technology with mention to “data storage,” “pattern language,” and “brain shrinking moving images.” Not my favorite track as far as the actual sound, but the message is one that I do frequently think about. Turner explains the title in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: “That was verbatim a news story I was unable to resist clicking on about a year ago, and I was unable to resist naming a song after it. It was laid out for me. We’re just living in a world where they’re flipping monster trucks forward.”
The chorus of this song is another one of my favorite lyrics from the album: “I want to stay with you, my love / The way some science fiction does,” as I am currently making my way through Kurt Vonnegut’s entire work of satirical science fiction novels (which I highly recommend) and thinking about all the hidden messages and metaphors about modern life. The song, packed with vintage and spooky synth, continues the dystopian theme of the album and proposes the idea that science fiction stories and movies aren’t all that far from reality.
This low and dramatic number more than makes fun of social media, a place where Turner very britishly puts it, we have “no limit to the lengths of the dickheads we can be.” He takes the cliché phrase “Dance as if nobody’s watching” and brilliantly flips it into “Dance as though somebody’s watching, ‘cause they are.” The bridge features one lyric that I find particularly gloomy: “No one’s on the streets / We moved it all online.”
“Batphone” is my personal favorite song off the album with a great chorus melodically and ironic lines like “I launch my fragrance called ‘Integrity’ / I sell the fact that I can’t be bought.” But ignoring the irony for a second, the last part of that lyric is funnily proved through the release of the album; after accusations from their fanbase that the band had sold out to mainstream pop, Turner has invalidated those claims with an album that is anything but mainstream.
And finally, the last tune brings the whole collection full circle with more deeply introspective and self-referential lines. “The Ultracheese” is slow and somber piano ballad, the narrator reflecting on past relationships. The second verse starts off, “What a death I died writing that song / From start to finish, with you looking on” and in an interview with BBC, the singer says there are many lyrics of songs from past albums that he regrets writing now, the “you” maybe referring to his fans pressuring him to compose a certain way. He leaves us with the beautifully sung lines “I’ve done some things that I shouldn’t have done / But I haven’t stopped loving you once” assuring us that though he is far from the person he was when he began his career, his love for music has not faltered.
Initially, I had intended on writing a review, but this turned into more of an amateur (and far from comprehensive) analysis. The more I listened to the album in preparation for writing, the more I realized that it doesn’t matter what some nineteen-year-old who is a hopeless singer and mediocre guitar and piano player at best thinks. The intensely personal record is an attempt by Alex Turner to make sense of his life through sharing his frustrations and experiences as a famed musician. And if I learned anything from my design schooling last semester, it’s that it doesn’t matter whether or not someone likes a work of art, and I consider Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino to be closer to art than the typical album (not to sound lame), it matters only that the narrative is clear and well explored. If you are someone that didn’t enjoy the new Arctic Monkeys album upon first listen, I strongly suggest you give it another try, and with special attention to the lyrics. I went from being regretful of the fact that I had already purchased tickets and planned my first road trip alone to Pittsburgh in July to see the band perform, to now wishing that they’ll play this album, and only this album, in its entirety.