With the genre of rock music at an all-time low ebb, many people have pinned big hopes on this, Arctic Monkeys’ sixth album. The group was arguably the last straight-up rock band to break through in a major way — their 2006 debut broke the record for single-week album sales in their native U.K. — and they’ve maintained their status as one of the world’s biggest bands via songs like 2013’s booming “Do You Wanna Know” (which broke them in the U.S.), 2009’s snaky “Crying Lightning” and the thrashy 2005 track that put them on the map, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” Singer/primary songwriter Alex Turner’s gnarled melodies and innovative wordplay add an ever-unfolding element of surprise to the group’s songs, and they remain one of the few arena-level rock bands who aren’t over 40.
Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but the excellent and hotly anticipated “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is probably not going to meet anyone’s standard for saving rock and roll; in fact it’s the group’s least rock effort to date. Turner has said it’s the first set of songs he’s written on piano instead of his native guitar, and consequently the album has an echo-speckled, orch-pop, Burt Bacharach/Jimmy Webb-type vibe that’s well-suited to a group that’s spent a dozen years exploring the standard two-guitars/bass/drums rock template and, not coincidentally, all passed the age of 30 in the past couple of years. (It also suits the vintage 1960s tape recorder featured on the cover art.)
While the new approach has taken Turner’s songwriting and singing into fresh areas — like the bonkers chorus on “She Looks Like Fun” and the orchestral flourishes on “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip” — the dog-leg melodies and haunting refrains remain, and his lyrics are hilarious as ever: The album’s oft-quoted opening line is “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes, now look at the mess you’ve made me make”; “Golden Trunks” features the immortal line, “The leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks”; and in the opening of “One Point Perspective,” Turner takes advantage of his Northern English accent to rhyme “Dancing in my underpants/ I’m gonna run for government” over a piano pattern that is (briefly) almost identical to Sara Bareilles’ “Brave.” The closing “Ultracheese” is a 1950s-style throwback ballad; longtime fans will probably flock to “Four Out of Five,” which has one of the group’s trademark snaky guitar riffs and skulking grooves.
While a change of pace, none of these songs will sound unfamiliar to fans, or really could have been created by anyone else except a very talented parodist. Ultimately, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is just a snappy new outfit for a group that knows experimentation and diversity are keys to longevity.