I thought the door to “AM”-era Arctic Monkeys closed in 2013. Embalmed with cigarette ash and buried in one of lead singer Alex Turner’s leather jackets, I thought the sounds similar to the album “AM” would never be revived.
With the opening notes of the first track “Star Treatment” on the Arctic Monkeys’ new album “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino,” I find myself right back in the lush, smoky clouds of “AM”-era Arctic Monkeys.
At the first sound of the song’s muted drums and echoing vocals, I am in a '70s jazz bar, cigarette in hand. Turner sits in the corner swirling a scotch, and the air is thick with sullen glances exchanged between fake potted plants.
Turner certainly seems nostalgic for such a scene, anyway. At 32-years-old, he’s too young to have experienced it in person, but that doesn’t stop him from imagining it in lyrics such as “Maybe I was a little too wild in the '70s,” in "Star Treatment." Like me, Turner aches for an era he can’t reclaim. He might be trying to bring back the '70s, but I am trying to bring back any version of the Arctic Monkeys that doesn’t feel like a sleepy continuation of “AM.”
“Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is nothing new and nothing particularly interesting after the Arctic Monkeys' raucous beginnings. “AM” and Turner’s side projects like the Last Shadow Puppets made this sound first, and they did it better.
Sonically the album trudges along at a mid-tempo pace through familiar territory. Listeners of the Last Shadow Puppets will recognize the atmospheric production of “Everything You’ve Come to Expect” in “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.” Threads of “Dracula Teeth,” a song from The Last Shadow Puppets, appear in the lush organ and synths of songs such as “Golden Trunks.”
“Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is a desert of riffs, and if you’re craving any of the hooks from earlier albums, prepare to go hungry. The album works in a subtlety previously unexplored by the Arctic Monkeys by spreading out into a landscape of layered piano, guitar and synths over which Turner croons his wry lyrics. It makes for an even-keeled album with few memorable hooks on first listen.
Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect the Arctic Monkeys to maintain their original energy throughout its 15-year-long career. But it’s hard not to reminiscence about the venom in lines such as “You tie yourself to the tracks and there isn't no going back…but we'll do it anyway 'cause we love a bit of trouble,” from the early album “Favourite Worst Nightmare,” especially when one listens to the baffling pretentiousness of “My virtual reality mask is stuck on ‘Parliament Brawl’” of Leonard Cohen-inflected “American Sports.”
One of the first bands to climb to fame via the internet, the Arctic Monkeys have always understood the value of self-styling. With each album, they’ve deliberately constructed new visual and sound identities, for better or worse. With the newest installation of its identity, the band deserves praise for so stubbornly adhering to a sound that feels like an unflavored compromise of Arctic Monkeys past.
With past albums, the Arctic Monkeys deftly navigated music trends and rode the post-punk revival wave to its “AM” era '70s rock. With “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino,” however, the album feels maddeningly solipsistic and hyper-aware of its own styling. Didn’t we leave coy aloofness in 2013?
I find myself growing impatient with Turner’s meandering contemplation of world politics, technology and “reflections in the silver screen of strange societies,” from the song “Science Fiction."
“In the daytime, bendable figures with a fresh new pack of lies,” is a poetic lampooning of modern politics in “Golden Trunks,” but its lethargic delivery feels half-hearted and weary.
Where is the fury of early Arctic Monkeys?
I imagine the bar interior once more. Turner speechifies in the corner while swirling scotch in a tumbler, the amber liquor washing over the ice cube again and again in a stupefying loop. I want to walk by and push the tumbler over the edge of the table. I want to see the scotch spill out among the shards on the floor. I want a mess.
Instead, I get the tidy calculation that is “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.” Five years after “AM,” the conceit that is the Arctic Monkeys has worn thin. When fanned too briskly, it dissipates like the smoke of this imaginary bar.
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