Album: The Car
Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Released: October 21st, 2022
Highlights: Jet Skis on the Moat, Body Paint, Big Ideas, Perfect Sense
The Arctic Monkeys were never a band that stood still for too long. Sure, their first two albums were stylistically rather similar, perhaps being the product of blokes that were still too young to move forward, but after that fantastic opening duo their discography started to gain interesting colors. Their third work, “Humbug”, had the English quartet heading down to the California desert to record with Josh Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age fame, and the dark hard rock aura of that band’s work heavily informed the sound of that album. Meanwhile, its follow-up, the saucily titled “Suck It and See”, rang with the chimes of jangle pop and flirted with the psychedelic echoes of the Madchester movement. A few years later, before unleashing record number five upon the world, vocalist, guitarist, and principal songwriter Alex Turner would quip that the only modern music he was interested in listening to at that moment was hip hop, and indicated that the band’s next album would merge the style’s beats with Black Sabbath riffs; the combination did come to fruition, and “AM” was so successful in its formula that it managed to break the Arctic Monkeys into the American market.
Yet, none of the steps in that intriguing journey had prepared the band’s fans for what was to come next. Released in 2018, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” was a shock. Yes, the Arctic Monkeys were no strangers to change, but up until that point they had gone through an arch that felt natural, retaining their core strengths and changing the surrounding ornaments. “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, on the other hand, dared listeners to find remnants of the group within its tunes; and although these could be located here and there, what came through was a different beast altogether. Gone were the fast-talking swagger, the street smartness, the hurricane rhythms, and the pounding guitars. In their place, what one encountered was music that seemed to be made by a band that played in the lounge of a luxurious hotel; more precisely, one situated in the area of the Moon that is known as Tranquility Base. Needless to say, reactions were mixed.
Because of that, even before “The Car” showed up on the horizon, there were abundant discussions on whether the band would continue down the same quirky path or move on to different grounds. According to Alex Turner, the intention was to travel down the latter road, as when he sat down to write new material he did so with the goal of going back to being loud. However, given artistic muses are among the universe’s most fickle creatures, the songs reportedly just did not want to go in that direction. And, before he knew it, Turner was writing more music in the vein of “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”. As such, to those who did not like that record, “The Car” brings little hope; it is mostly more of the same and it does not present a jump in quality that is big enough to convince someone that the Arctic Monkeys can pull off that style. Contrarily, to folks who appreciated the band’s turn into odd sci-fi lounge music, “The Car” should rank, at worst, as interesting.
As usual, though, simply labeling the album as more of the same is missing the nuances that make it effectively different. Because, ultimately, that is what “The Car” is: its constitution is, like that of its predecessor, firmly grounded on easy-listening instrumentals, which Alex Turner uses to spin wordy lyrics with nigh free-flowing melodic structures; however, there are elements that make it unique. The first and, some would argue, the most important is the absence of irony. In “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, the Arctic Monkeys were playing lounge music because that was the concept; they were meant to be emulating a fictional band performing at a non-existent hotel so that Turner could go through the science-fiction playbook of talking about the silliness of humanity while using a futuristic scenario. In “The Car”, though, the subtext is gone; there is no wink and no tongue-in-cheek. The Arctic Monkeys are playing easy-listening for the sake of doing it.
On its own, that should not be a bad idea. After all, thankfully, there is not a rule out there dictating good albums should be built on concepts. But to ears that did not get along with “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, that is a major blow, because, once again, many of the tunes Turner brings to the table feel flat. Too often, he meanders through lyrics without hitting on a hook; and frequently, the skillful group makes its way through instrumentals that are pleasant but not sufficiently special to leave a mark. To boot, given how the type of music that is played here naturally puts a strong spotlight on the vocal work, Turner’s voice comes off as not being suited for that task. And although he, like his bandmates, should be commended for trying something distinct, the fact of the matter is that the sum of the parts leaves a lot to be desired: Turner is not as moving of a crooner as he thinks he is, even if he has not lost a step when it comes to writing engaging lyrics; and it feels the Arctic Monkeys are being underused as instrumentalists in this brand of easy-listening music.
Still, all is not lost in “The Car”. For starters, as a whole, the album emerges as a more varied work, a trait that is nicely exemplified by its opening three tunes: “There’d Better Be a Mirrorball” feels like a straight continuation of the previous record, but with the added touch of majestic strings; “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am” is led by a surprisingly funky guitar riff; and “Sculptures of Anything Goes” is dominated by a haunting synthesized landscape that could have come out of an experimental post-punk track. And that goes without mentioning the acoustic flourishes seen in the title track as well as in “Mr Schwartz”; the rocking conclusion in lead single “Body Paint”; or the abundant use of orchestrated arrangements, which are so frequent they make “The Car” as much of a chamber pop work as the albums Alex Turner put out with The Last Shadow Puppets, his side-project.
Sadly, without the hooks to back it up and the irony to make it intriguing, the musical evolution seen in “The Car” falters through most of the way. That does not mean, however, there are no redeeming tracks in the bunch, as just like it happened in “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, there are at least four songs here that qualify as being enjoyable. “Jet Skis on the Moat”, which also flirts with funk in its guitar, has a genuinely beautiful chorus and a recurring hook in its verses; and the same goes for “Body Paint”, which has the added benefit of being the album’s most dynamic tune, including extensive orchestrated work and a coda that pulls out distorted guitars. Besides having a great melodic climax, “Big Ideas” oozes the irony that “The Car” lacks almost everywhere else, as Turner strings together into a meaningful narrative cliched phrases usually said by those who have huge creative projects in mind but that never bring them to fruition. And “Perfect Sense” wraps up the album as a touching string-laden lullaby.
Once more, then, the Arctic Monkeys have put together a work that is bound to be divisive. While “The Car” certainly surpasses “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” as far as dynamism is concerned, this is still a band that made their name playing incredible barn-burners suddenly embracing a kind of music that was projected to lie pleasantly in the background. And when one adds the general melodic and instrumental flatness of the work with the loss of the conceptual irony that fueled its predecessor, the result is a package that feels unremarkable despite possessing a few noteworthy moments. As such, even if a band should never be criticized for trying something different, especially when that target is not the fruit of commercial pressure, it is nigh impossible to hold back disappointment when a great group loses itself in the search for artistic renewal; and, to those who did not enjoy “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, “The Car” is confirmation that the Arctic Monkeys are currently adrift.