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Arctic Monkeys Jettison Their Guitars and Shoot the Moon

Call it the inevitable surprise. The story of Arctic Monkeys’ career to date being that of a gradual gentling in their guitar attack, the logical end point was an album with hardly any guitars or attack at all. One counts the days till some clever wag dubs the new Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino the band’s Kid A. [Ed. Note: Mike, you can stop counting now.]

It isn’t. It’s not that left-field, more the latest stage in an evolution going all the way back: to the clattering bar fights of their debut, the 2006 U.K. smash Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which gave way to the more polished but equally pummeling Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007), which begat the brooding self-doubt of Humbug (2009), the crooned pop balladry of 2011’s Suck It and See, the locked grooves of 2013’s A.M. Across that span, you’d have noticed less and less of the often punishing pace and oddball serrated riffage that had been the band’s early stock-in-trade, with the boys seeming bound and determined to bevel out and lacquer over their formerly jagged little thrills.

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We’re given to understand this had something to do with cracking the tough-nut U.S. market, with respect to which their success has been a mixed bag. A.M. went platinum this side of the pond, getting Arctic Monkeys as bigly exposed as a sold-out night at MSG, but still failed to make theirs a household name stateside. Meanwhile, there continues to be a vocal contingent in the fan base here — call it the backward-hatted faction — clamoring for a return to the snottier, more aggro “early stuff.” Arctic Monkeys can’t win for losing.

Accordingly, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino begins with the sound of lead man Alex Turner tossing up his hands as to what’s liable to stick in a country as savagely fickle as ours. “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” he intones. “Now look at the mess you’ve made me make/Hitchhiking with a monogrammed suitcase/Miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway.”

The track, “Star Treatment,” will go on to posit an alternate-universe version of Turner: a frontman who was “a little too wild in the Seventies” (the actual frontman was nowhere near alive for that decade) and who presently finds himself crashing “back down to Earth with a lounge-singer shimmer/Elevator down to my make-believe residency from the honeymoon suite/Two shows a day, four nights a week/Easy money.” Or maybe that’s the psychic state in which the real Turner now finds himself, his band’s heady early days well in the rearview as he reckons with having softened the group’s approach in search of a sort of broad palatability, one that still didn’t get him quite where he’d hoped to be.

But while the downtempo arrangements — and relative absence of any sound for which sawtooth might seem a fitting descriptor — may mark this new batch as of a superficial piece with A.M., here those elements work toward far different ends. Tranquility Base is as cagey and anxious as A.M. was a slickly assured unit-shifter; the new album’s chockablock with self-lacerating lyrics (“I’m so full of shite,” e.g.) and meandering, irresolute melodic lines. Even the grooviest-sounding thing here, “Four Out of Five,” turns out to be a Trojan horse for Turner’s mordant irony as he plays dubious real estate pitchman:

Come and stay with us
It’s such an easy flight
Cute new places keep on popping up
Since the exodus it’s all getting gentrified
I put a taqueria on the roof
It was well-reviewed
Four stars out of five
And that’s unheard of.

Now is probably as good a time as any to note that the hot new property his narrator’s shilling for isn’t on this planet; it’s on the moon, “around Clavius” to be precise, with the “exodus” referring to a speculative and apparently very literal kind of white flight. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a concept album, see — a loose one, maybe, but still — and, that being the case, also a license for getting out of Turner’s usual lyrical, um, orbit. Gone are the straight-ahead character sketches, the wry accounts of wasted nightlife, of young romance, of oily pimps and douchebag strivers and irresistible femmes fatales and guys in tracksuits you’d best avoid after they’ve got a pint or two in ’em. And in their place…well, what?

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As Turner has aged, his lyrics have shied away from making themselves amenable to easy reading. He remains a writer without peer in virtually all of rock, but he’s become, over the years, brick by brick more oblique and abstruse — more apt, too, to adopt the perspective of somebody else entirely, and so more editorially unreliable. See, for example, the new album’s title track, where he tries on a new persona (hardly the only thing Bowie-esque about the song, it bears noting): “Good afternoon, Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino/Mark speaking/Please tell me, how may I direct your call?” If you don’t think that’s Turner being willfully opaque, consider the non sequitur that concludes “One Point Perspective” (“Bear with me, man, I lost my train of thought”) or this triplet, from “She Looks Like Fun”: “Finally I can share with you through cloudy skies/Every whimsical thought that enters my mind/There ain’t no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be.”

So while one might catch the occasional passing mention of the “apocalypse” that necessitated that lunar sojourn — and while one can certainly enjoy Turner’s trademark rapid-fire prosody and facility with internal rhyme on their own merits — identifying anything like an overarching story line is probably a futile exercise, especially given how that thread is forced to share airtime with all the career-retrospection. Besides, concept albums are only ever as good as their actual melodic material, which is why no one cared that Sgt. Pepper abandoned its conceit two songs in, and why no one listens to Dark Side of the Moon for Roger Waters’s thoughts on being and nothingness.

And here’s where Tranquility Base is most characteristic of the Arctic Monkeys oeuvre: It’s another wildly uneven work, song-quality wise, from an act you’d be hard-pressed to call a great “album” band. The record’s noticeably front-loaded, for one thing, failing to achieve much of any interest beyond the midpoint. “She Looks Like Fun” turns out to be an interminable bore; “The Ultracheese,” living up to its name, pure schmaltzy schlock.

https://youtu.be/DHMBJ2do1XU

On the other hand, “Star Treatment” nicely sets the mood, all plodding jazz borne on the breeze of a tinkly piano until the welcome drama of a gloomily repeated low-end figure, and never mind if the chord changes take the proceedings dangerously close to Steely Dan. The title song, meantime, manages to accomplish in about ten seconds what Turner could fill up notebooks trying to convey, its restless swept arpeggios and implacable-machine bassline conjuring the kind of deep-space dread for which one usually has to turn to films like 2001 — this even as the lyrics (“Jesus in the day spa, filling out the information form/Mama got her hair done, just popping out to sing a protest song”) remain as elusive as radio waves careering through infinite space. Then there’s high-water mark “Four Out of Five,” its killer cool and pure-pleasure harmonies belying an escalating desperation.

Thankfully, then, Arctic Monkeys still know their way around a good hook — guitars or no. As to the next phase in their continuing evolution, one hopes it’ll finally be the album that, whatever its thematic concerns, comes packed cover to cover without a skippable cut in the lot. Till then, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino will have contributed a handful more tracks to what is, no doubt, a very fine best-of playlist:

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WEIRD SCIENCE

The California-formed, New York–based band We Are Scientists may be the most indie-rock outfit of all of indie rock. Between their catchy lyrics, upbeat melodies, underlying fuzzy sound, and nerdy literary references, the band has been primed for success ever since their second album and major label debut, With Love and Squalor, came out in the early millennium, a prime era for the genre. Like contemporaries Arctic Monkeys and Hot Hot Heat, We Are Scientists belong to a time when rock focused almost entirely on making you dance without necessarily being “dance” music. In March, they released TV en Français, a continuation of their efforts to hold down the nerdy dance-rock fort.

Fri., April 18, 9 p.m., 2014

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Arctic Monkeys

Since the 2006 release of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the Arctic Monkeys’ musicianship has had to compete against hype. Regarded as the “next Beatles” by UK press and having had the fastest-selling indie record in UK history, the Monkeys have had to prove that they’re not just a product of internet fandom but a veritable rock ‘n’ roll band that has left some type of mark on the genre. With last year’s AM, the band took a few cues from former tour-mates the Black Keys and gave their old post-punk sound a bit more of a bluesy, r&b jolt. Their newer sound is mature, slowed down, and proof that a product of the hype machine can find ways to progress and grow after passing through it. Because of that, the Monkeys have become the stadium headlining band many always wanted and expected them to be.

Sat., Feb. 8, 8 p.m., 2014

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Arctic Monkeys

A four-piece rock band born out of a suburb of Sheffield, England in 2002, Arctic Monkeys enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame in 2005, when the then-teens tossed out free EPs to draw a fan base. Although generally considered part post-punk revival, the band has tweaked their sound each album, beefing up with heavy-handed drumming and frantic riff-heavy songs, while maintaining the quick-quipped lyrics and chunky bass lines that made them famous. Their newest album, AM, contains strange citations of hip-hop, so expect some back vocal falsettos and Dr. Dre beats atop all the swaggering balladry and muscular guitar work.

Mon., Sept. 16, 8:30 p.m., 2013

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Arctic Monkeys+Smith Westerns

Arctic Monkeys are out on the road in an appealing retro-greaser guise that goes a long way toward redeeming the lumpy stoner metal of their last two albums. Playing with TV on the radio at the Hollywood Bowl last month, they worked the smoke machine hard. This time, Chicago glam revivalists Smith Westerns, a band whose members might have parents younger than their favorite records, open.

Wed., Oct. 19, 9 p.m., 2011

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PLANET OF THE APES

England’s Arctic Monkeys lost the plot a bit on 2009’s Josh Homme–produced Humbug, which obscured frontman Alex Turner’s lyrical gift with a bunch of murky psych-garage grooves better handled by guys with nothing to say. Fortunately, Turner and his mates are back in words-first mode on the more straightforward Suck It and See, due out next month. (Sample lyric from “Reckless Serenade”: “Called up to listen to the voice of reason and got the answering machine.”) They’ll likely provide a preview tonight, but with support from the furiously hyped Vaccines, they’re sure to lean on the old hits as well.

Tue., May 24, 7:30 p.m., 2011

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Arctic Monkeys

It’s been only five years since young British indie-rock media darlings Arctic Monkeys stormed out of the blogs and into the middlestream. Now the group has gotten its footing. Having flirted with punk, stoner rock, and Morrissey-like Britpop, the Monkeys have congealed into a band boasting the best of those genres: frontman Alex Turner sings lyrics that are equally smarmy and witty, he and his bandmates can ably transition between tambourine-driven ’60s dance rock into Iggy-worthy spunk (there’s even a song called “Brick by Brick” on their forthcoming record, Suck It and See), and they haven’t lost sight of their sense of humor (read that album title again). With the Vaccines.

Tue., May 24, 6:30 p.m., 2011

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ALL OF THE MONKEYS AIN’T IN THE ZOO

In today’s turnover, a six-year career should be counted in dog years, and Arctic Monkeys have not slouched during their wild trajectory; 2006’s “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor,” as British a single as the Queen is herself, propelled their album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, to become the bestselling debut in U.K. history, and this summer’s Humbug brought in newbie producer Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) for thicker, more sinister rock than their post-punk prior. It’s been said endlessly, but confirmed now: They’re young, but they’ve got it down, and they’re the utter professionals of the British scene. With Screaming Females.

Thu., Dec. 10, 8 p.m.; Fri., Dec. 11, 8 p.m., 2009

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Arctic Monkeys

Just in time for the holidays, English stoner-rock punks Arctic Monkeys are touring the U.S. for their anytime-but-yuletide bid Humbug. A far cry from the power-chord rock that defined the band members as teenagers, they’ve since become Big Box rockers, citing Black Sabbath as a key influence on this album and working with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age as co-producer. As such, their music echoes a lot more than previously and subsequently the “dancefloor” from their first single will have a lot more elbow room in the cavernous Terminal 5. With Screaming Females.

Thu., Dec. 10, 8 p.m.; Fri., Dec. 11, 8 p.m., 2009

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THE BUZZ

Next year, Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors are scheduled to release their debut for Domino—the label that launched Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys to stardom. So, if you’re the type concerned with being able to say you were there first, think carefully before skipping out on this free gig. Next time they play gratis, it could be at Central Park, Bon Jovi–style. OK, probably not: Even casual fans know that Rise Above, the Projectors’ buzzed-about 2007 disc, was billed as frontman Dave Longstreth’s Afro-soul reimagining of the Black Flag album Damaged, which is about as commercial a proposition as, well, the Black Flag album Damaged. Still, Longstreth and his bandmates are one of New York’s most unique indie-rock acts; don’t miss ’em. Opener White Williams believes in the power of pop as well as the primacy of power—dude plays a laptop, and those have to be plugged in.

Fri., Aug. 15, 7 p.m., 2008