When Arctic Monkeys announced that no pre-release singles would herald their latest album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the decision seemed like a head-scratcher, but after hearing the record even once, it makes perfect sense. The band’s sixth album is undoubtedly their strangest, most alluring release to date; none of its 11 spacey songs come even close to sounding like a proper single, never mind alcohol commercial soundtrack fodder. Guitars (formerly a staple of Arctic Monkeys’ sonic diet) take a backseat to twinkling keyboards and zero-gravity ambience, and drummer Matt Helders—one of the best timekeepers in modern rock right now—lays down languid grooves instead of the pummeling he’s known for. Singer-songwriter Alex Turner and co. have flirted with psychedelia in the past, but they’ve never sounded this trippy.
Granted, Arctic Monkeys are no strangers to stylistic evolution. Since the one-two punch of 2005’s star-making debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and the frenzied 2007 follow-up Favourite Worst Nightmare, they’ve essentially (and sometimes literally) played dress-up with every successive release: 2009’s Humbug added long hair, stoner-metal heaviness, and an onstage fog machine; 2011’s Suck It and See cast the band as stumbling Britpop-era romantics; 2014’s AM fused desert-rock sounds with Teddy Boy-inspired sartorial choices. But those records also retained the basic elements of Arctic Monkeys’ core sound: razor-sharp guitar lines, huge sneering hooks, and Turner’s wry, observational lyrical musings on life and love.
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, on the other hand, sounds like the work of a different band entirely. A few contemporaries come to mind regarding this record’s rocketship anti-rock—MGMT’s freaked-out dark pop, Tame Impala’s more contemplative moments—but otherwise Arctic Monkeys are pulling from the well of classic rock, from Pet Sounds’ eerie glow to the weightless swagger of Lodger-era David Bowie and Serge Gainsbourg’s besotted elegance.
While this space-pop synthesis of rock history recalls the Black Keys’ most recent record, 2014’s Turn Blue, that album’s attempts at blacklight poster ascendancy came across as inert; Tranquility Base glimmers even in its darkest moments. “One Point Perspective” rests on a sweet piano figure, Turner’s burnished croon, and a bassline orbiting it; the moody and sinister “Four Out of Five” eventually opens up to an aching melodic figure that’s the closest thing Arctic Monkeys come to a traditional chorus on the entire album.
There’s little to be found here with the immediacy of yore, but this ends up working in the album’s favor: the more you give in to these vibes, the more the vibes give back. That goes double for Turner’s lyrics, which are playfully quotable in a manner that recalls the opaque asides of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar. On a level, Tranquility Base is conceptual in its talk of astral lounges and lunar taquerias; but calling it a “concept album” would oversell the preciseness of Turner’s lyrical preoccupations, which span from binge-watching TV and VR headsets to Stetson hats and monster truck flips—sometimes in the same song.
Some pre-release hay has been made of a few choice lines, including “The leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks,” which Turner croons in “Golden Trunks,” immediately conjuring images of You Know Who doing You Know What. “I don’t know,” he replied to Pitchfork, characteristically aloof as ever, when asked if the album possesses explicit political allegory. “More of those ideas have certainly found a way into this record than anything I’ve done before.” And that sense of heading into the unknown—of charting new and strange artistic territory, accessibility be damned—pervades Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino as a whole, its own adventurousness proving a successful gambit.