To entertain, in some way, is to surprise, to question, to tease, and even to ruffle. The Car, the 7th LP by the British rock quartet from Sheffield keeps us glued with their half-baked secrets, yearnings, and goodbyes amidst a sound that is once again, revised, if not reinvented. It seems like over the years frontman Alex Turner now owns two pairs of shoes: the rock god with slick hair and sultry riffs, humbled in heartbreak, and the reflective lounge writer, bending genres while lazily pondering the fate of the universe. The Car which could be classified as orchestral art rock or baroque pop/funk, finds itself somewhere in the middle of these two worlds.
In early 2014, after the meteoric rise of AM, the UK band hit the stratosphere (outer space, too, would be charted a few years later) of both fame and critical acclaim. Their savoury guitar hooks and unforgettable choruses sent fans into euphoric convulsions; even the casual listener couldn’t help but take notice. Turner became the face of rock and roll, a genre that he said would ‘never die’, in a BRIT Award speech for Album of the Year. Go further back, and one begins to reminisce the days when Turner wrote like an innocent, imaginative, and infatuated schoolboy on Submarine (“I etched a face of a stopwatch/On the back of a raindrop/And did a swap for the sand in an hourglass”), or even their explosive debut in 2006, with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. It’s almost as though that first album title was prophetic—fans have been perennially stumped by their evolving musical identity.
In 2018, after being gifted a piano for his 30th birthday, Turner embraced the keys in Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino. He did take “the batteries out his mysticism/and put them in his thinking cap” (a lyric from Suck it and See). Love took a bit of a backseat and modern society was masterfully reflected upon in a genre-bending, space lounge, funk-rock-collection of tunes. A sound so different that it was initially almost jarring, even for their loyalists. Just a few weeks in, its brilliance dawned—the vivid story of a post-apocalyptic luxury hotel on the moon grew on us in a fashion that should almost be outlawed.
In The Car, it’s as though the Monkeys have returned to Earth from their escapades in outer space, jaded by a divided fan base, but still enjoying the aftertaste of their lunar holiday. The compelling but dystopian ‘tech-has-ruined-us’ critique is replaced by more recognisable conversations in Turner’s head, about deceptive lovers (“For a master of deception and subterfuge), nostalgia (“Why not rewind to Rawborough Snooker Club?/I could pass for seventeen if I/Just get a shave and catch some Zs”) and complicated goodbyes (Still dragging out a long goodbye/I ought to apologise). As much as this collection is about romance, trust, and the usual stuff, it’s also a cheeky, bitty dialogue Turner has with his audiences. He is unapologetic and self-aware of his artistic departure (“Puncturing your bubble of relatability/ With your horrible new sound”), yet wistful and still searching(“I’ve been given good reason to believe/I ain’t quite where I think I am”). The album really does sound like a getaway vehicle with tinted windows (an E90 Toyota Corolla, apparently): full of half-revealed ruminations and translucent lyrics that shun all enquiries.
The enigma is intentional. Turner remarks that the album was “quite a long time, a real edit in process,” signifying a shift from their songs coming alive in the band’s explosive expression on stage to fine-tuning things back in the studio. Rhythmically, with Matt Helders’ tight drumming, the band often merges piano, guitar and voice in four-bar intro riffs, that later make way for a whole string section to take hold of the fills, verses and climaxes. “Everything,” Turner says to Apple Music, “has its chance to come in and out of focus.” The piano is still around, but the guitars seem slightly more familiar, less from outer space and more from an eccentric Englishman’s living room. One could argue that due to their sonic complexity, they’re still closer in instrumentation to Tranquillity Base, but vocally, Turner’s delicate falsetto now sounds more like it’s a part of his daily arsenal than reserved for fantastical settings. The result is one that carries influences of David Bowie’s later tunes, Gloria Ann Taylor (How Can You Say it, in particular) and Steely Dan, among more. Hints of the old romance do remain, (“Lights out on the Wonderpark/Your saw-toothed lover boy was quick off the mark”) and there’s surely a James Bond theme hidden somewhere in the LP.
With the singer’s newfound affinity for cinema and “the business they call show”, it’s safe to say that the ‘old’ sound has been bid Adieu, as the group moves out of Los Angeles and to the French Riviera. Let’s embrace it: we wouldn’t be so intrigued by the boys from Sheffield if every album was just a different spin on AM, notwithstanding its brilliance.
Alex Turner is almost like a “strip-down-acoustic” version of the quintessential musical icon of 2023, on the exterior at least—no face tattoos, no purple hair, no bulging biceps, no ‘iced-out’ accessories. Yet, he captivates audiences like few other songwriters of the generation have. I don’t know what it is exactly that he does, but I’m reminded of something Vincent Van Gogh said in a letter, “I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart. I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.”
For all we know the Monkeys’ next influence could be Dutch post-impressionism (humour me), but that’s the point, right? To keep striving, to stay open to inspiration, and to let creativity take the lead without worrying about acclaim or about the past. Mathew Strauss of Pitchfork, says the frontman is now in the ‘midst’ of transforming the Arctic Monkeys, perhaps implying that the transformation must, one day, be complete—that there is some clear end to be achieved. But with Turner, we seem to be learning an important lesson—that discovery is a constant, that being in one place is unnatural. Art, one could say, is just an ongoing adventure, a topsy-turvy rollercoaster that the Monkeys have learnt to ride in style.