Arctic Monkeys returned from their five year hiatus with a completely overhauled sound on 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, delivering lavishly-arranged indie lounge driven by creative mastermind Alex Turner’s new preference for playing piano. While they pulled it off with considerable aplomb, the question still lingered; would it be a one-off excursion or a whole new phase for the Sheffield foursome?
“In the summer of 2021, when the Euros were on, the boys were back together being a band in the English countryside for two or three weeks,” Turner says in the notes for new album The Car. If there is any suggestion that this football-fueled reunion in their native land might have prompted the quartet to return to the guitar-led rockers that made their name, it is quickly removed upon playing The Car. Although there is more guitar this time, once again the tempo and volume throughout is middling, leaving plenty of room for Turner’s poetic pontification in his learned croon while orchestral adornments abound.
On Tranquility Base, Turner managed to sell the new sound by pairing it with winking and razor-sharp observations of the glitz, glamour and hollowness of modern day Hollywood – although transported to a base on the moon. It was a canny combination; the sparkling, cinematic style was a perfect reflection of the surface-level lives he was observing. On The Car, the trappings of glamour and fortune are still present, but he’s turned his attention somewhere more personal. We find him in his Batcave, lonely and penitent, picking over moments passed and opportunities missed.
Undeniably, he is a master of this tone, both lyrically and vocally, and the arrangements on The Car do a fine job of reflecting his reminiscences with a murky warmth that’s like looking through the mists of time. But, for an album that consistently stays in this tone, it’s lacking that deeper emotionality and instrumental innovation needed to make it memorable.
“There’d Better Be A Mirrorball” is a gorgeous introduction to the piece. Woodwinds weave in behind Turner’s self-admonishment; “don’t get emotional” he intones, before drifting deeper into his wallow. It’s a deeply affecting portrayal of someone reliving long-gone glory days, but then comes the central request “can we please make sure there’s a mirrorball for me?” which sounds pretty and suggests something meaningful, but ultimately is logically impenetrable. In this instance Turner pulls it off in this instance because the rest of the song is so damn piercing, but he’s less successful elsewhere.
Throughout he seems to want to open himself up and go deeper into his emotional bag, but his desire to write something clever instead of going for a more direct route can obscure the meaning. “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am” with its wah wah guitar and minimal groove suggests an aging rock star, one who lives a privileged life in a fancy mansion and jet sets around, but we’re supposed to feel sorry for him. On the one side we have a great line about “stackable party guests”, but then this is followed up by a confusing complaint about “the disco strobes in the stumbling blocks”. “Jet Skis On The Moat” suffers the same fate, mostly because it’s hard to make sense of lines that are supposed to wring nostalgic empathy like “didn’t recognise you through the smoke, pyjama pants and a Subbuteo cloak”. He often gets away with random imagery like this, but “Jet Skis On The Moat” also features The Car’s most plodding, unmoving instrumentation – pairing it with the line “are you happy to just sit there and watch while the paint job dries” seems like the band shooting themselves in the foot.
“Sculptures of Anything Goes” is another song about a well-off lonely person, and starts with a line about “sockin’ it to ya”, with Turner sounding more un-hip than he ever has. Nonetheless, Arctic Monkeys salvage the song by keeping it simple; blobs of distorted bass rising like dark clouds in the protagonist’s mind, tingles of guitar tickling like memories skirting the surface of his conscience, all rising in drama alongside Turner’s falsetto – it’s their most atmospheric piece to date.
Then there’s “Big Ideas”, a song about someone who is overflowing with brilliant melodies for his band to work with, but once in the recording studio where “the orchestra’s got us all surrounded”, his mind goes blank. It seems to be half autobiographical and half making fun of the music and movie industries, but it doesn’t really give us much memorable insight into either. It seems like a missed opportunity, especially as it possesses a luxurious string arrangement and a fine guitar solo – “The Ballad Of What Could Have Been”, indeed.
Between other baffling offerings like “Lego Napoleon movie written in noble gas-filled glass tubes underlined in sparks” (“Hello You”) and “Richard of York: The Executive Branch, having some fun with the warm-up act” (“Perfect Sense”), there are some songs where Turner and co do put together a fine combination of words and instrumentation that reminds us of the enormous talent they have.
“Body Paint” is another song about regret, but this time the lost love is mixed with some teasing and little lasciviousness, bringing some much-needed spice to proceedings. It also concludes with guitars blasting and Turner going beyond his practiced tones to relay a more bodily, gut-driven emotion. It’s a stand out moment because it’s relatively unkempt compared to the rest of the overly-neat offerings. The following “The Car” finds Turner at his poetic and vocal best, sighing “but it ain’t a holiday until you go to fetch something from the car” over simple acoustic guitar and piano that suggests a drizzly, overcast day with a bit of sun peaking through the clouds. It’s no coincidence that the most affecting moments on the record are in its humblest, most relatable songs.
However, The Car overall still leaves something to be desired. The titular motif pops up throughout the album, but for me it only served to remind of one of Arctic Monkeys’ earlier defining statements: “Do Me A Favour”. In that song, the car is the setting for gut-wrenching despair (“there was tears on the steering wheel, dripping on the seat”) and is also a symbol of a dying relationship (“the car went up the hill and disappeared around the bend”). It’s an immediate, visceral song that has real stakes; a broken domestic life and tortuous self-hatred, rendered by Turner’s yelp and the band’s explosive drive.
This immediacy, urgency and vividness is almost entirely absent from The Car, which, despite its undeniable beauty and accomplished writing, ultimately doesn’t lay a glove on your heart. If The Car is any automobile in particular, it’s a Ferrari or Lamborghini; you might watch it pass for a moment, admiring its sleek curves, shimmering façade and purring engine, but you won’t care much about the driver – and once it’s out of view, it probably won’t be long before it fades from memory.