Arctic Monkeys Grow Up and Get Weird On The Inspired ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’

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Arctic Monkeys‘ sixth LP, the syllable-rich Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, opens with an instant-classic and already oft-quoted lyric: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” the band’s frontman Alex Turner sings, “now look at the mess you made me make.” The “mess” to which Turner refers is a career that has long since exceeded the band he worshipped as a puckish teenager.

It’s true that Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 debut Whatever You Say I Am, That What’s I’m Not earned the band “British Strokes” comparisons from the jump, due to Turner’s mile-a-minute narratives about youth and young manhood set to energetic garage rock tantrums. But The Strokes peaked early, showing signs of flame-out right around the time that Arctic Monkeys were getting started. Since then, the British Strokes have zoomed past their US counterparts in nearly every way, putting together one of the more enduring careers in modern rock music.

Arctic Monkeys reached a new artistic and commercial plateau with their fifth album, 2013’s AM, a slinky, sexy riff-fest that borrowed hip-hop’s throbbing bottom end and fused it with bluesy guitars and Turner’s tales of late night revelry. Like many Americans, I appreciated the Monkeys before AM, but I didn’t really love them until “Do I Wanna Know?” became a ubiquitous presence on rock radio and in commercials. Finally, here was a song that drew from T. Rex and 50 Cent simultaneously, pinpointing the shared elements that lead to wanton bumping and grinding, making it a perfect artifact for this era of effortless hybridization. One of the decade’s great rock records. AM also bolstered the Monkeys’ rep as the rare rock act to appeal to both traditionalists (AM is one of the best selling vinyl records of the ’10s) and the streaming generation (“Do I Wanna Know?” is closing in on a half-billion spins).

Now, Arctic Monkeys stand out as a leading example of an endangered species: The very popular, and archetypal, arena rock band. If your dad can’t wrap his head around Imagine Dragons being classified as rock, and also can’t be bothered to give the epic but introspective The War On Drugs a chance, then Arctic Monkeys perfectly play the part of swaggering, leather-jacketed rock stars.

It’s a testament to the band’s suddenly unique niche that nobody has really threatened its position in the five years since AM, in spite of a long hiatus from touring. This summer, when Arctic Monkeys finally head back on the road, they’ll headline Lollapalooza — if they still don’t seem quite famous enough in America to justify that slot, just try finding another rock band right now who at least seems like they should be closing out the night of a major American music festival.

If Arctic Monkeys are concerned about maintaining their big time rawk status, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino — and, yes, Turner does manage to turn that cumbersome phrase into a catchy chorus on the title track — betrays no outward impulse to repeat the sultry formulas of AM.

Whereas its predecessor teems with snarling guitars and stomping drums, Tranquility Base is centered on Turner’s Steinway piano, a gift for his 30th birthday that provided the album’s unlikely catalyst. While guitars haven’t been completely banished, Turner’s clanging keys create the album’s most dominant sounds. The result is a record that still resides solidly in the rock column, but the reference points have shifted from rap and ’70s glam to arch, crooner-y torch songs, the sort that David Bowie mastered on Hunky Dory and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds have reiterated time and again since The Good Son. It’s a left turn that feels like a positive shift away from the “youth” part of the band’s career, and towards something a little more grown-up and a lot stranger.