Arctic Monkeys – The Car

RiYL: The Last Shadow Puppets, Sufjan Stevens, Brian Eno, David Bowie
Recommended tracks: “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am,” “Big Ideas,” “Hello You”

The follow up to Arctic Monkeys’ polarizing Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is here after four long years. The Car confirms that the band’s radical departure from their Sheffield rock roots was not an exception, but the formation of a new rule. Whereas Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino embraces the futurism of the ‘60s space age, The Car grounds its audience back down to Earth with nostalgia for the ‘70s. 

However, while The Car may be more accessible than its predecessor, its lack of absurdity that was present on Tranquility Base may be the thing that makes this new album somewhat unremarkable. To be clear, The Car is by no means an incompetent album; the continuous blending of genres and instrumental experimentation evidences the band’s talents. Nevertheless, the new release could have benefited from a clear artistic concept, which is what made Tranquility Base exciting even if it was divisive. Sonically, The Car embodies a notable soundtrack to a mediocre ‘70s film. Lyrically and thematically, the album is vague and undefined, ultimately leaving something to be desired. 

The opening track and lead single, “There’d Better Be A Mirror Ball,” sounds the most comparable to Tranquility Base of the ten songs. If you were listening to the two albums back to back, you might assume this is a hidden bonus track at the end of the former instead of the start of a new album. The dominating piano that characterizes Tranquility Base is similarly front and center on The Car. However, the introduction of strings on “There’d Better Be A Mirror Ball” indicates the new direction the album is preparing to go. 

The hotel lounge sound of “There’d Better Be A Mirror Ball” quickly gives way to the exuberance of “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am.” A choir of sultry voices and a kinetic funk guitar introduces the second track, immediately channeling the score to an unspecified ‘70s crime flick. It’s easy to envision the protagonist cop sauntering down the street sporting a pair of aviator sunglasses during the opening credits, underscored by a film composer’s string arrangement.

The energy is expended swiftly, however, as suspense is restored with “Sculptures Of Anything Goes.” Dense synths suspend the listener in a state of unease as the song steadily builds to a subtle climax. On “Jet Skis On The Moat,” the funk guitar makes a return in a more subdued context, signaling the tedium that accompanies the middle of the album. “Jet Skis On The Moat,” “Body Paint,” “The Car,” and “Big Ideas” unfortunately blur together during the first several listens of the album, and a certain fatigue sets in as the lines between individual songs are blurred. 

There are redeeming qualities to these tracks that warrant admiration, however. Alex Turner’s rhyming of “subterfuge” with “tanning booth” on “Body Paint” is commendable, and the lyrics on “Big Ideas” might be the album’s most compelling. The song reads as a reflection on the band’s experience with show business and considers the corner they may have inadvertently backed themselves into. “We had them out of their seats / Wavin’ their arms and stompin’ their feet,” Turner claims before declaring later in the verse, “Over and out / Really, it’s been a thrill” in a self aware acknowledgement of the band’s pivot in style. Yet, despite relishing in “big ideas” for new song material, Turner admits, “The orchestra’s got us all surrounded / And I cannot for the life of me remember how they go.” At once a confident farewell to the band’s former identity and an unsure question of how best to proceed, “Big Ideas” enunciates the complicated feelings that accompany significant change. 

The monotony of the middle of the album is thankfully disrupted with “Hello You,” probably the most melodically memorable song from The Car. A hybrid of piano and strings crafts a short but striking hook that dances around congas, violins, and electric guitar licks. Though the majority of Turner’s lyrics defy interpretation on this track, there is a moment that can be translated as a continuation of the self-conscious themes from “Big Ideas.” “Hello you, still dragging out a long goodbye? / I ought to apologize for one of the last times,” Turner suggests, “As that meandering chapter reaches its end / And leaves us in a thoughtful little daze.” Perhaps Turner is directing his question at himself, contemplating the band’s new path while still walking on it.

“Mr Schwartz” and “Perfect Sense” provide a regrettably anticlimactic conclusion to the album, relying on the piano, acoustic guitar, drums, and strings that have remained consistent throughout. Neither song prioritizes a distinctive melody; rather, they both wind their way through their respective runtimes, neglecting to produce an identifiable structure. 

Unlike Arctic Monkeys’ previous records, The Car doesn’t appear to be about anything in particular. Barring themes of self-referential contemplation on “Big Ideas” and “Hello You,” the album lacks a narrative thread that weaves the songs together into a cohesive whole. Turner’s lyrics are obscure and difficult to identify with, and clear insight comes only in brief, fleeting glimpses. 

For me, the fun of a new album comes from being inundated with a new batch of sounds that I didn’t know about the day before. I want to feel a hunger for an album that can only be satisfied by listening to it, and unfortunately, that’s just not the case with The Car. The songs don’t lodge themselves in your head; they slide around through your ears and slip back out a few seconds later. Repetitive exposure is necessary for certain snippets to stand out in your mind and to distinguish one song from another.

However, maybe there’s something to be said for making music that doesn’t immediately carve a space for itself into your brain. Without the familiarity that comes only with time, each listen to the album feels as if it could be the first, which can be nice. It’s also worth noting that training yourself to pursue music you would normally abandon after a single listen can be productive. After spending some time with the album, I’ve come to appreciate certain elements I didn’t register the first few times I heard it. Arctic Monkeys are incapable of making a shoddy album; some just require more commitment than others from their audience. Approaching The Car almost feels like approaching an arranged marriage: it’s about finding ways to appreciate what you have and working within those boundaries. The more patience and perseverance you put into the relationship, the more reward you will get out of it.

Arctic Monkeys - The Car