Have you ever heard of the band Starflyer 59? They were a 1990’s My Bloody Valentine disciple turned independent New Order esque band in the 00’s. They are still going strong after 25 years (check out 2003’s Old and 1994’s Gold). In 2001 they made a record almost no one heard called Leave Here A Stranger. From a rock band it was a curious album, taking cues from Pet Sounds left and right, but not melodically in any real way. It was a precious, dense, calm 70’s soft rock opus that was actually recorded and released in mono. The kind of record a savant makes when hardly anyone is listening and there are no rules.
The Arctic Monkeys have made their Leave Here A Stranger at the largest apex of their career. 5 years removed from a massive single, a massive tour and a massive record the have starved millions of fans waiting for the follow up to their epic, slick modern rock record A.M. The Monkeys have decided to alienate as many of those fans as possible by releasing a concept record about a lounge singer on the moon.
That sounds like a synopsis for a lost episode of Flight of the Conchords, but it is actually what is happening here.
The craziest part – it has its moments.
The Monkeys have come a long way. From passing out as many CD-R’s as they could to not releasing even a single in advance of their fifth record. It's easy to see why now. Which song here would you release as a single? The whole thing is a massive slow burn. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is a headphones record disguised as an A.M. radio collection of deep cuts. It’s a brilliant record disguised as a comedown.
Listen once and think it’s an overreaction to some of A.M.’s excesses, listen 5 times and discover the smarter, younger brother to A.M. It’s a subversion disguised as a misstep. Destined to be brushed aside by many and prized by few, it’s a record that’s confident in all the reasons it will be disliked. It's easy to dismiss the Arctic Monkeys. Humbug was too stoned, Suck It and See was too slow, A.M. was too polished. This one will be easy to dismiss too, but let it unfold a bit and show its strengths and associations.
It's not exactly unexplored territory like it thinks it is. The touchstones are obvious but well played. “Star Treatment” starts with Alabama Shakes vibes and ends with a Tame Impala riff on top of some ad-lib Al Green-style vocals. “She Looks Like Fun” sounds like one of those White Stripes songs that was clearly made up in the 5 minutes of remaining studio time. “American Sports” is full of Bono impressions. Closer “The Ultracheese” sounds like the Walkmen, if it was sung by a guy in the 1950’s imagining what the moon would feel like.
That isn’t to say the record is full of rip-offs. It's truly not. Many bands could make a record like this, but its safe to say no one else would.
The title track is inspired by tedium from the perspective of the moon hotel receptionist. “Four Out of Five” is a slow motion version of one of their early career classics and has more Bono impressions. And better ones, plus the best chorus on the record. The falsetto on “Golden Trunks” is one of the few times the aim clicks. Turner’s voice has always held more power the faster the song and the quicker the changes. This record challenges all preconceived value propositions of both the band and his voice specifically. It lands firmly in the lead singer solo record camp. The bold sound and style seems designed to alienate all but the most hardcore fans. Longtime fans will criticize
The final sound and vibe is like any number of solo records in the early and late 70’s from 60’s classic rock bands. It’s a confusing step for a band that has built their career on dynamism, to build a record mostly focused on minute movements from the lead singers vocal delivery as he personifies some type of middle manager on a foreign planet. It’s a concept album from a band that definitely shouldn’t make a concept album.
It’s the kind of concept record that will divide longtime and new fans equally. Some screaming for volume and petulance and some screaming for people to give it a minute and listen to what’s actually there. Unfortunately, they are both right.
It’s an album that by its very nature can’t make use of its greatest instrumental asset – drummer Matt Helders. That’s like Radiohead choosing a genre that can’t utilize Johnny Greenwood in any way.
If you played the dangerous and immediate Whatever People Say That I am… for 1,000 people would even one think that a sci-fi lounge singer would be a good future step for the dynamic lead singer? I guess if they were going to go back to the lightning post-punk of their first record, they would have already done it.
Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino is the best possible kind of average record, one that goes out swinging. One that goes for it on every level. A record that, although it isn’t great by any typical metric, is extremely curious and entertaining. C PLUS