‘THE CAR’ by the Arctic Monkeys

The Arctic Monkeys' onward journey continues with occasional glimpses in the rear-view mirror.

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 does all of that with their half-baked secrets, yearnings, and goodbyes, through a sound that is once again, revised, if not reinvented. It seems 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 is arguably orchestral art rock or baroque pop/funk, finds itself somewhere in the sweet spot between 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 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 are being perennially stumped by their evolving musical identity.

A stark change occurred in 2018, when 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 marketing itself on the moon, grew on us.

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 farewells (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 the getaway vehicle with tinted windows on the album art (an E90 Toyota Corolla, apparently): full of half-revealed ruminations and translucent lyrics that shun away all investigators.

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 eight-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 tone and 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.

While his music may be complex beyond his years, Alex Turner’s personality has remained pretty “strip-down-acoustic” when compared to musical icons of 2023, on the exterior at least—no face tattoos, no purple hair, no bulging biceps, no ‘iced-out’ accessories, no changing pronouns. 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, isn’t it? To keep looking, to stay open to inspiration, and to let creativity take the lead without worrying about acclaim, or about past laurels. 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 Arctic Monkeys have learnt to ride in style.

Yuvraj Nathani
Yuvraj Nathani

Yuvraj Nathani is Founding Editor at ALMA Magazine. For more, follow him here.