Driving, but in what direction?
Lucy Harbron
13:09 18th October 2022

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No band have really had a trajectory like Arctic Monkeys and made it last. There’s a long history of bands trying something new and bold, and failing. Risks often don’t pay off, and with Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino we saw rocky ground. But they stuck it out, it seems they’re always sticking it out.

A phenomenon that reaches from Millennials to Gen-Zs, Alex Turner endures as the ultimate frontman of our time. Regardless of sound or single, I think we can all firmly agree that he’ll be there at the cultural forefront as someone to obsess over. We forgive him all his woes as a whole era of fans simply sighed and got over the heartache when the Sheffield boys graduated up and out of tracks about tinnies and fighting and into a higher class of LA crooners and concept albums. 

I want to state that no forgiveness ever needed to come from me. I loved Tranquility Base and continue to love it as one of their finest works. As we step into this new era with the release of The Car, that fact feels so important because it will be the deciding factor. On this album, Arctic Monkeys are drawing a line. If you’re not willing to join them on their evolution out of indie rock and into something different, you’re about to be left behind. They’re opening the imaginary car door, and telling you to get out here. 

On the singles ‘There’d Better Be A Mirrorball’ and ‘Body Paint’, that feeling was more like a gentle invite, delivering the two most realised tracks of the record as a teaser. As everyone waited for the album, you could feel fingers crossing that this would be part of it but not the whole. No one would argue the stellar songwriting on both and the absolutely perfected production - the band sound undeniably amazing, flexing their skills far away from thrashing guitar solos as they merge classical elements with avant-weirdness. So even if you weren’t keen and were gagging for a return to AM, you were probably willing to enjoy the ride for a bit to see what the new era could turn out like. But as ‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’ kicks in and the band suddenly slip into a 70s funk attire, with a heavy wah pedal more akin to Parliament or Funkadelic than any of their old indie peers - you might be prepping to tuck and roll.

"In moments it feels like we’re listening to the birth of a song rather than the finished product..."

With so many of the songs on The Car, there’s a jam vibe; a sense that these songs are more improvised than tried and tested. Even more so than the last album, this feels like Alex’s work. His crooning voice stands at the forefront while the instrumentals figure themselves out around him, with the other members feeling more like a house band than contributing members.

And even Alex seems to be feeling his way through the lyrics; pulling out notes-app phrases scribbled down after some weird dream and trying to assign them meaning later. In moments it feels like we’re listening to the birth of a song rather than the finished product. Standing in front of a new moodboard plastered with pictures of Sinatra, Jacques Dutronc and even some Father John Misty alongside the old time stars - it sounds like the band have picked their influences first and are figuring out the sound second. Mixing perfected orchestral moments with odd rhythms and confused phrasings, it’s as if we’re meeting them in a rehearsal room where Alex sings semi-nonsense lyrics over a not yet finalised melody, but they’ve thrown on some strings for good measure and called it an album. 

Title track ‘The Car’ remedies it somewhat. Playing with themes of memory and childhood, painting the car as a central figure in growing up as we fetch things from the car with our grandads and then drive away from old lovers as adults. With Jamie Cook coming in for one of the few solid guitar moments of the album, it slides into a glorious movie soundtrack-esque moment. Toying with a larger sound that is Bond theme worthy on the second half of the album, ‘Big Ideas’ follows suit as a clear stand out. Full of strings that are more in focus than before, added guitar licks and surprising keys - it’s a clear stand out. 

And the whole album could’ve been like this! The whole album had the potential to be huge. It didn’t need to be AM, but as the band evolve, it falls short the scale they used to play on. As they prepare to play stadiums, The Car doesn’t feel stadium sized. Perfectly suited to a plush theatre, surely at some point the shift in sound has to be matched by a change in approach to their live show? Because while ‘Hello You’ could get a sway from the crowd, a set list swinging from ‘Brianstorm’ to ‘There’d Better Be A Mirrorball’ could give us all whiplash.

Unlike Tranquility Base, where those very different songs were all strung together on one clear themed thread that the band were in space or whatever, The Car lacks that. We’re left with nothing to grip onto. Somewhere between 70s influence and clear 1940s lounge singer moments, between california on ‘Jetskis On The Moat’, old Vegas on ‘Mr Schwartz’ and even an American Psycho-esque New York on the dark ‘Sculptures Of Anything Goes’ - there is no through path and it lacks that. While moments of emotion peak through when Alex sings a killer line, like And how's that insatiable appetite? / For the moment when you look them in the eyes / And say, "Baby, it's been nice". But with no context or world to slip into, by the midpoint of the record, you feel lost. 

There’s no central story to return to, no enduring vibe to engage with, not even a uniform like the leather jackets of AM or the cowboy chic of Suck It And See. While the sound is impeccable with an audio that is rich and lush unlike anything we’ve heard in a while - without something to hold onto, I don't know if it can endure the 4 year wait until the next one. Or if it’s a strong enough piece to help fans hold up the cultural phenomenon while giving them little to nothing to embrace or adopt in return.

The Car arrives October 21st.

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