Image: Domino Records

Arctic Monkeys have long been consistent. Not with their musical style, which morphs with every album, nor their haircuts, which also transform—longer, shorter, less hair gel, more scruff—with every era. What they’ve been consistent with is timing.

Ever since the British indie-rock band released their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, in 2006, fans have never had to wait more than two years for the next release. Their sophomore album, Favourite Worst Nightmare, dropped in 2007, following the frenzied coattails of its predecessor’s nearly cloying popularity in the U.K. Next up was Humbug in 2009, then Suck It and See in 2011, and AM in 2013, the last of which finally brought the band to whatever defines American mainstream rock success in the 2010s, a decade in which the genre has struggled to maintain relevancy.

But it’s 2018 now, five years since Arctic Monkeys released their last project. In that time, most of the lads—except for lead singer and songwriter Alex Turner—have gotten married and had children. Turner released the second album of his side project, the Last Shadow Puppets, in 2016, had a couple of different girlfriends, and now has the name of his current beau tattooed on his arm. The band has been busy with domestic bliss, while fans have been, in a word, thirsty.

Arctic Monkeys’s mid-2000s peers have long since taken hiatuses, disbanded, or peaked 13 years ago yet continue to release (largely forgettable) albums. But with the success of AM, Arctic Monkeys were able to gain popularity at a time when the rock landscape has never looked bleaker. This isn’t to say there aren’t great rock bands out there; I’ve discovered plenty via BandCamp or random Spotify auto-curated playlists.

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But those bands are not achieving the sort of widespread success that might have been more accessible a decade or so ago. Sure, they’ll score a sweet Pitchfork review every now and then; at a push, they’ll snag a performance on a late-night TV show. But when Tame Impala, Haim, and Imagine Dragons are some of the only newer rock groups that someone who isn’t a dedicated rock music fan has heard of, that’s, well, really fucking depressing. And then there’s Arctic Monkeys, who’ve been unfairly burdened by both the high expectations of an album following a longer-than-normal hiatus and the responsibility to argue rock’s relevancy in 2018—a task they didn’t sign up for and one they would likely find nauseating.

The band’s sixth album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, was released today with almost nothing leading up to it. No music video, no lead single. This was a conscious decision. Turner told Mojo Magazine that guitarist Jamie Cook suggested the album be released without any singles. The only hint at the direction of Arctic Monkeys’s next album was a cryptic 42-second teaser video, released in April. Aside from watching footage taken by concertgoers at the band’s first few shows in California and New York, or downloading the album leak earlier this week, fans had to wait for the whole album to drop before experiencing this new era of Arctic Monkeys, and the reaction has been, in a word, chaotic. In less than a day of release, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino has proven to be the most divisive album of the band’s discography.

All it takes is a stroll through Twitter’s search engine or the Arctic Monkeys subreddit to see that fan reviews are mixed. “Please don’t tell me all that hype was a disappointment bc the TL is ..... not happy,” said The Hood Oracle on Twitter, followed by a reaction photo of Wendy Williams looking verklempt. She wasn’t wrong: both old fans and those who were introduced to Arctic Monkeys from the success of AM have expressed confusion at best and derision at worst toward TBHC. Fair enough: TBHC is Arctic Monkeys’s most radical sonic departure.

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Humbug in 2009 was the last Arctic Monkeys album to have had a similar effect, fracturing the fanbase and leaving those loyal to the first two albums to view the band with skepticism. Arctic Monkeys traded in their catchy, rapid-fire style of indie-rock with songs like “When the Sun Goes Down”—ridden with colloquialisms and tales of fucking about in High Green, Sheffield—for darker, psychedelic-adjacent fare like “My Propeller.” But listeners could still rely on an electrifying guitar solo, an edge, which was softened (but still there) in SIAS and was turned into pure, arena rock fodder in AM. Not the case with TBHC.

Turner called his Los Angeles home studio his “lunar base,” while recording this album, and it shows that he’s a man who loves a theme. The concept of TBHC is this: Arctic Monkeys are the in-house jazz band at a hotel on the moon. Weird, yes, but if you just go with it, then the album is less of a letdown and more of a kooky adventure that only the likes of Turner—who was always an endearing oddball, but more on that later—could cook up without it coming across as pretentious garbage.

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The first song, “Star Treatment,” starts off with Turner drawling, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes.” But the sound couldn’t be more distant from the band that inspired Arctic Monkeys nearly two decades ago. This is more of a David Bowie treatment, elevator music on acid, an indie-rock response to bossanova. The lounge-y opener is punctuated by sultry oohs while Turner croons on, giving us a pretty accurate taste of what to expect for the rest of the album.

It would be reductive to call TBHC a piano album, but on many songs, Alex traded in his guitar for a piano, an instrument that he says helped him out of a creative slump. He told Mojo, “I’ve tricked myself into writing—by sitting at the piano, doing this thing that I haven’t done before...That gave me permission to go somewhere I’d had trouble getting to before. It allowed me to put across how I feel more, more… broadly than before.”

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Maybe that place was politics. TBHC isn’t riddled with as many songs about love or sex as the previous records; this isn’t an album full of wink wink nudge nudge lines like those on AM’s “Arabella”: “Wraps her lips round the Mexican coke/Makes you wish that you were the bottle.” Fuck that, it’s 2018, and we’re all fucking terrified. So instead, we’re getting songs touching on dystopia, technology, and political tension.

The band that once prided themselves in being apolitical—for fear of looking stupid—injected some topical flare into their new songs. “American Sports” is perhaps the most overt. There’s a mention of “battleground states” and lines like, “My virtual reality mask is stuck on ‘Parliament Brawl’/Emergency battery pack, just in time for my weekly chat/With God on video call” and “Breaking news, they take the truth and make it fluid.” The fuzz-heavy “Golden Trunks” contains a reference to President Trump as Alex melodically cries, “The leader of the free world/Reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks.”

“Four Out Of Five”—the most accessible song on the album—touches on blind consumerism and references gentrification: “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.” The taqueria is the place to go, and it’s called Information Action Ratio, which is when one has access to a surplus of information but doesn’t know what the fuck to actually do with it. You know, like our cursed Timelines. Turner borrowed from a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, telling Pitchfork, “I was attracted to the idea as soon as I heard that phrase; even though it was in this book from [1985] it still seemed relevant—more relevant than it probably was when the guy made it up.”

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But this clever lyricism brings me back to the earlier point about Turner, the kook. Turner has been winding the strangest, most endearing combinations of the English language from the jump. If there’s one constant in every Arctic Monkeys album, it’s that. Is there anything more Alex Turner than naming a song “Batphone” or “Ultracheese”? Because those are both songs on the new album, and they’re Turner to the core. That’s why it’s odd to see so many reviews—from fans and professional critics—act as if the sonic departure signals a larger shift for Arctic Monkeys. The wordplay is such a fundamental feature of Arctic Monkeys music, and it boldly anchors TBHC with the rest of Arctic Monkeys’s discography. With some sped-up guitars, many of the songs could have been right at home on Humbug, the aforementioned album which was once viewed with skepticism and later revered as a favorite of the Arctic Monkeys canon.

Sure, TBHC is more of an album that you smoke a joint to while laying on the couch than an album you’d head-bang to like AM. This record is a grower, one that you need to listen to from start to finish, maybe even more than once, before you discover the treasures it’s offering behind its jarringly tranquil notes. But you’ll find them, if you want to. TBHC isn’t showing us where rock is going, and despite enjoying large swaths of the album, I’m glad for it. But it is showing us what integrity looks like: Arctic Monkeys could have coasted off of their AM sound, absorbed the accolades, and kept it moving all the way to the bank. Instead, they did the weirdo album they wanted to do. The album might not be the one to resurrect rock, but maybe an album from a band that’s already been in the industry for over a decade doesn’t need to be.