Arctic Monkeys’ elegant return to earth: The Car review
Dexter Woolley reviews Arctic Monkeys’ new album, The Car.
In 2018, the Sheffield quartet released their divisive album Tranquillity Base Hotel + Casino. The anthemic riffs, wandering bass, and sensual lyrics of AM were gone; replaced by piano-driven ballads, cosmic ramblings, and frontman Alex Turner remodelled as a late-night, interplanetary Serge Gainsborough: troubled with the effects of technology, fame, and consumptive self-indulgence. The album seemed to have divided fans, as the band shied away from the guitar-based rock that had garnered an unimaginable level of universal success. After the ‘Tranquillity Base Hotel + Casino Tour’, performing a setlist that gratingly moved between erupting garage rock and surreal space ballads, the band were forced to ask questions about the future of the band. Venture further into uncharted waters or return to what they know?
Their seventh studio album, The Car, certainly sees the band doubling down on their new creative direction. The lead single, ‘There’d Better Be A Mirrorball’, opens to a inhaled silence. As a breath is drawn, staccato hits of Turner’s piano puncture the resonant space; the stunning echo of Butley Priory creates an atmosphere that sets the tone of the album. The car waits as the protagonist observes the rear view of the fading relationship, emotional baggage in tow. Nick O’Malley’s bass and Matt Helders’ drums are minimalistic and purposeful. Jamie Cook’s Moog synthesizer circles around the core, swirling as Turner’s chords strike and fade like soft waves. Turner’s lyrics move between the poignantly simple to achingly poetic with ease: “You’re getting cynical and that won’t do / I’d throw the rose tint back on the exploded view”. Turner’s lyrics can be seen as excessively cryptic, obscuring meaning. However, on The Car many of the images conjured just feel right. The emotion of the opening song seems to burst at the seams as luxurious strings draw the song to an earnest conclusion, an affective opener.
The album cover shows a vintage Toyota Corolla, photographed by Helders, in a deserted, tyre marked car park. The imagery seems to convey the loneliness that the band has been exploring since AM. The funky, Wah laden guitar of ‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’ and ‘Jet Skis On The Moat’ juxtaposes their rather bleak lyrical content, exploring themes of disassociation and boredom. “Mr Schwarz” conveys the loneliness and lack of agency of the entertainment industry or “the business they call show”. Turner croons “If we guess who I’m pretending to be / Do we win a prize?”, expressing his use of performativity as an act of disguise – curious of with way ‘Alex Turner’: the suave frontman, acts a means of hiding in plain sight.
Similar themes are explored in the baroque rock of ‘Body Paint’, using the unknowable female figure, a character traceable back to What Ever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, as a means of visualising the disguise worn everyday: “I’m keeping on my costume / And calling it a writing tool”. Throughout much of the album, sometimes obscured by Turner’s cryptic writing style, there is a running thread of melancholia that could be lost in the theatricality of his crooning vocal performance.
The uncertainty felt by the band following their final tour show in Bogotá is reflected in the lyrics. The images of unseen film productions, distant band meetings, and cavernous galleries suggest an anxiety around the construction of their art. Assembled around Helder’s and Cook’s industrial drum machine, ‘Sculptures Of Anything Goes’ is, musically, more reminiscent of cold post-punk like Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures than much of Arctic Monkey’s previous work. The slow, ominous bass and sepulchral drums open the ghostly space of sterile gallery walls. Sculptures in the marble enclosed space seem to provoke a reflection on Turner’s own lyrical obscurity: “Puncturing your bubble of relatability / With your horrible new sound”. There is an unease with which they approach their “horrible new sound”, fearing drowning as they venture further from the nightclubs of High Green, Sheffield.
The slow, ominous bass and sepulchral drums open the ghostly space of sterile gallery walls.
The song ‘Big Ideas’ finds its artistic protagonist looking back on their previous work, nervous about their future output: ‘The Ballad of What Could’ve Been’. The song ‘Hello You’ is the most evocative of their previous work. The sliding guitar riff echoes AM songs like ‘Knee Socks’ and ‘Do I Wanna Know?’. The song explores the singer’s relationship with his younger self and the future direction of the band. The lyric “Why not rewind to Rawborough snooker club? / I could pass for seventeen if I just get a shave and catch some Z’s” is particularly emotional as a long-time fan. The “kids who like to scrap with pool cues in their hands” of 2006 are a distant memory.
The Car seems to get better with every listening. The opulent instrumentation draws you in, but it is Alex Turner’s lyrics that keep you. Venture into this album, engage with it, and an album of deep reflection emerges.