Album Review: Arctic Monkeys - 'The Car'
Five albums into their career, developing a unifying theory of Arctic Monkeys albums was a relatively simple task.
They weaved from straightforward Strokes-meets-Libertines garage rock revival on their first two albums; then they fell under the spell of Queens of the Stone Age-esque desert rock for their next couple of records, which I did not properly appreciate until, like frontman Alex Turner, I started getting really into the Josh Homme extended universe at 23-years-old.
For their fifth LP, they created a synergy of their two eras for “AM,” which was about as successful as a straight-ahead rock album could seemingly be in the 2010s. (“Do I Wanna Know?” is one of the 100 most played songs in the history of Spotify, and even under a fairly loose definition of the genre, you could count the rock songs ahead of it on one hand.)
In 2018, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino,” a straight-up lounge pop album, came and redefined any expectations anyone could reasonably have of the band.
Arctic Monkeys’ seventh studio album, “The Car” is a return to their rock roots, but that is simply to say that there are real-life guitar riffs and Matt Helders, one of the great rock drummers of his era who seemingly took the last album off, can actually be heard. Although, he has seemingly moved on from trying to be the heir apparent to classic rock icons like John Bonham or Keith Moon and has instead settled behind the kit in an attempt to sound like R&B drummers like Benny Benjamin or Al Jackson Jr.
The album is considerably less extreme than its predecessor, “Tranquility Base,” which arguably primes listeners for the much more relaxed version of Arctic Monkeys than the band that shot out of a cannon into the rock mainstream with 2005's “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” a song released when the band members were teenagers. If the band maintains its current pace of album recording, this will be the group’s final album in their 30s, and unless you’re AC/DC, maintaining a teen’s attitude into middle age usually comes across as insincere. And even when the characters they embodied in their songs in the early years were dirtbags, nobody ever accused Arctic Monkeys of not being self-aware.
The first track and first single from "The Car," “There’d Better Be a Mirrorball” hearkens to the lounge pop of the previous album, with Turner’s crooning giving a pop-jazz quality. The song is a touch more melodic and warmer than the prior album overall, but there’s little indication from it that much has changed; the same can be said of “Body Paint,” single number two, though mixed with '60s-esque strings.
Where the album, both as a cohesive unit and from the narrative arc of its singles, starts to break new ground is “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am,” the second track and third single – the guitar is as funky as it has ever been from the band, and its drumbeat and multiple chorus vocal tracks conjure the ghosts of “AM,” if not of the band’s earliest work. The track is not “fun,” per se. Like much of “AM,” it kind of sounds like a guy either not enjoying his time out on the town, or perhaps hungover from it, but the mere presence of life is a breath of fresh air.
When “The Car” works at its best is when the band is unashamed of its previous rock tendencies – sure, the drum flurry of “Brianstorm” would be incongruous to a group of veterans who haven’t made a rock album in nearly a decade, but there are guitar riffs, both subtle (“Jet Skis On The Moat”) and overwhelming (the outro of “Big Ideas” in particular).
There remains the one true constant of Arctic Monkeys through each of their sub-eras – complicated, intricate lyrics, ones which arguably fit their current style of musicianship more than previous ones. Opening a song with the line “For a master of deception of subterfuge, you’ve made yourself quite the bed to lie in” ("Body Paint") makes far more sense in the context of lounge music than a punk song about having too many drinks at a nightclub, though this was also the sort of thing that the mid-aughts Arctic Monkeys would have done.
More time has now passed between the release of “AM” and “The Car” than stood between the band’s earliest demos and “AM,” so perhaps calling something as brooding and complicated as “The Car” anything other than what the band truly is now is a fool’s errand. There will inevitably be a part of longtime fans that doesn’t want Arctic Monkeys to change, but this is what any band which is no longer the hot new show in town needs to do. They adopted an approach closer to that of The Strokes, the band that they literally declared that they wanted to be in the opening lyric of “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” – experiment with new styles not as an attempt to recapture one’s youthful glories but as a way to just not turn into self-parody. The alternative likely would have been the Libertines route – release two exciting albums as kids, burn out in a blaze of glory, only to return a decade later to minimal fanfare.
No, “The Car” isn’t a classic on par with the band’s debut, but it’s not as though their debut now ceases to exist. And the album is, if not lounge perfection, a step in the right direction from a band that is going to keep doing things their way whether the audience likes it or not.