Arctic Monkeys are known for pushing the boat out, for they have evolved their sound with every album. With their latest addition, their 7th studio release, The Car, we get more progression towards a refined, mature, sophisticated, crafted Arctic Monkeys. The band has strayed a fair way from their origins; however, they have executed this new direction with much careful consideration and the results prove it.
The soundscape is the signature change for the band at this point in their nearing two-decade long career. The Arctic Monkeys have honed in on their endeavours from Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino, looking to take some of that cinematic tone and cash in for a dramatic movie feel. This record could certainly support the score for a film. Every song carries that dramatic weight, in various iterations and forms. Part of this achievement must be born out of the album title though. It’s arguably unoriginal, but it is so transparently simple and symbolic that it lends itself for enthusiasts and casual listeners alike to wonder what sounds could be held inside. Matt Helders took the photo that speaks of inquisition as a lone vehicle sits in isolation on a rooftop carpark. Alex Turner wrote the title song, after seeing the photo that became the cover.
The soundscape is created through the broadest range of instruments used on an Arctic Monkeys record to date. The band selects various mediums to create the sound of the luscious world of The Car. Most notably, the use of classical strings really builds out the scale of the sound to emphasise key moments on many tracks. The instrumentation across the board takes this approach to embellish specific points in many takes. Each element has a place and complements one another. Matt Helders’ drumming is exemplary for this fact, as he shows his skill in being so tight on time and applying perfect pressure onto the cymbals to consistently draw the jazzy foundations. Of course, we are used to thrashing, punchy drums from the Arctic Monkeys, but it’s nice to hear the more intricate touches against the kit, as it develops an enticing vibe. We also get features of a hand drum, with what sounds like a set of congas playing condiment to the warbling bass on a few tracks, which creates this subtle funk sound.
Then there is the return of the various keys, as Alex Turner clearly falls more in love with the timbre from an array of string instruments. Some notes feature a real pearlescence that glimmers softly throughout. It adds to the silkiness of the sounds that underpin the LP. My favourite iteration of the keys is the organ keyboard which feature prominently to give that bold overlay for various tracks. The piano also continues to offer opportunities for Arctic Monkeys to produce more ballad type songs, which the band does, with the likes of ‘Big Ideas’ and ‘Mr. Swartz’.
Looking more deeply into the various tracks, we start with ‘There’d Better Be A Mirrorball’, which was the lead single off the new record. It was also the first song to be conjured up in Turner’s brain two years ago, who had been toying with the introduction section for a while. The creative process for the remainder of the tracks to be made was based off of this song, finding sounds that complemented the aesthetic of the single. The song swings into a waltzing intro section, immediately showcasing the strings, velvety bass, and lightly patted ride cymbal. Droplet notes from the piano lead us to a brief crescendo, before intermittent series of one-note pulses from the instruments, create a mysterious build, before launching back into the swinging riff.
Turner is first heard singing, “Don’t get emotional, that ain’t like you. Yesterday’s still leaking through the roof” which immediately confirms our film noir suspicions. Turner has said the opening line was to present as a reaction to the dramatic introduction. Following this, the chorus burgeons with a theatrical lift, thanks to the melancholic strings taking over with much conviction. This all sets the tone loud and clear from the outset. The first mention of the metaphorical (or perhaps literal) car is mentioned in the song, which nicely pays homage to the title of the piece. The track’s character is depicted to be walking to the car with a heavy heart, it’s clearly quite a story full of sorrow. This single is symbolic, as it sounds like the main theme for our hypothetical film score. It reintroduces the maturing sounding band, as we settle back on earth, after our long sabbatical up in space with the science fiction infused previous album – Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino.
The second song from the list was the third single released for the album, available to the masses just a couple of days before the full LP was set free. ‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’ is an interesting change from the opener. It’s quite soul-like in moments, due mostly to a vocal chorus from a group of people that keeps the aesthetic consistent. Opening with our first iteration of hand drums to provide a hollowed and rounded sound to the lower tones, accompanied by a warbling bass, it’s oddly groovy. This song was perhaps intended to add some more lively energy into the album, to hold the audience’s attention. “Early predictions would seem to suggest, that I ain’t quite where I think I am” lends itself to this theme of critique about one’s place in life, a sort of disillusionment feel plays out because of it. This theme comes back more throughout the album. Overall, this is the first clear depiction of Arctic Monkeys blending genres on this album, and it’s a real strength of the band.
‘Sculptures Of Anything Goes’ is a dark, seducing tracking as it uses some quirky keys to satisfy. We get our first taste of space inspired moog synth, which sets a bass-heavy undertone for the duration of the track. This one is minimalist in its appearance, but it builds and adds a few layers which really enthrals the listener. My favourite layer is the addition of the organ keys which pan from ear to ear, as it lifts the profile of the song so subtly, but necessarily. This song returns to a mysterious kind of sound, that leaves the listener wondering what it’s all about. With lines like, “The simulation cartridge for City Life ’09, is pretty tricky to come by” and “How am I supposed to manage my infallible beliefs; while I’m sockin’ it to ya?”, it feels characteristically cryptic and confident as all Arctic Monkeys offerings have been. I like the cynical nature of this song, taking a dig at the affluent, maybe questioning arts place in society as a whole, “Blank canvasses leant against the gallery walls, flowing towards sculptures of anything goes; on the marble stairs”. This track is certainly a gem, a real highlight of the album.
The fourth track is a silky jazz/funk fusion that only seeks to delight. ‘Jet Skis On The Moat’ is a song that feels like disassociation, and a massive part of that feeling is down to the textures in the song. The bouncy guitar bends and truncate embellishments across the fretboard, in association with the continually dawning organ notes that make for a dreary, half-baked beat that gives it that uncertain air. This is further explored through the lyrics which illustrate some luxurious themes with the jet skis mentioned in the song, as well as lines like “Is there somethin’ on your mind, or are you just happy to sit there and watch while the paint job dries? When its over, you’re supposed to know”; which really play into this theme of absence. A lot of the symbolism in this album surrounds materialistic tropes but look at it in a romanticising way that alludes to the dissatisfaction from such surface level sources of connection to the human experience. This one plays on a dreamy vibe, and it’s further solidified by Alex’s extra soft vocal performance which is tender and comforting in this instance. It’s a real Sunday afternoon unwind kind of song, which has merit in resetting the pace before we rip back into the grander moments on the next track.
‘Body Paint’ was the second single in promotion of the new album. It holds itself in restraint as its drums intermittently throb, while the keyboard and piano keep their role to hold the riff to account. Alex Turner lets his falsetto fly on various points throughout the song and sings with this smoulder that is very appealing indeed. With a layered progression championing the track again, it’s hard not to buy into the building energy as we finally get some release with the single-noted guitar breaks that characterise the bridge. The series of strikes onto the pickups of the guitar are open ended in tone and allow for some proper umph to come bounding through. Turner enjoys playing more guitar on this album than he usually does, his confidence clearly growing. But this is not the highlight guitar work, that comes with the following track!
The title track is another interesting number from the album, it starts with a guitar hook, which is reminiscent of a Peter Gabriel era Genesis intro, as the acoustic guitar strings shimmer. It’s quite the subdued intro, with the whole track on the softer side which showcases the slowed tempo that features throughout the album. This track really is the guitar number, as we get the acoustic feature for the intro and then a vocal feature with the opening lyric “Your grandfather’s guitar, thinkin’ about how funny I look.” But a golden moment comes near the conclusion of the song, with a solo guitar break. The solo is prefaced on some weeping string bends, before a panning hammer on/off moment is had, to signal our peak. For a small interval, we get a melting drone that sounds like Eddie Hazel’s heroic solo from the 10-minute guitar excursion that was ‘Maggot Brain’, by Funkadelic. Guitar buffs will lap this up, as it’s quite the beautiful moment and one not to go unappreciated. Of course, the themes on this song almost go full circle, referencing the hypothetical car from the title once again. The line “But it ain’t a holiday until you go fetch something from the car” revisits this idea of the meaning behind the vehicle. It seems this time, the car represents the freedom to explore, a kind of romantic expression.
‘Big Ideas’ takes a 70’s soulful keyboard to tell a tale of ruminating on creativity. The Arctic Monkeys tend to be self-aware in their more recent releases, and this is no different. “Some just hysterical scenes, the ballad of what could’ve been” or “I had big ideas, the band were so excited. The kind you’d rather not share over the phone” almost explicitly reference Alex Turner’s creative journey over the past two releases as he battled with the stardom success of AM. Another line, “Over and out, really it’s been a thrill” directly acknowledges the fact that Arctic Monkeys have been on a quite the journey, as they learn to let go and embrace their own artistic evolution. This one is all about the lyrics.
Coming off the back of the stronghold ballad, the band pick things up again with ‘Hello You’. This one features more hand drums, which give it a nice groove. Playful sounding keyboard notes tiptoe around the hazy bass and guitar lick. I like the way Turner’s voice has been recorded in this number, it’s close to the mic and makes the song matter sound even more authentic. A lot of the vocals are seemingly recorded this way, which is a real treat. Turner’s voice deserves such spotlight as he brings theatre worthy performances to tape.
The second to last song is one for the entertainment biz, as we get an insight into the very world that the Arctic Monkeys hail from. ‘Mr. Swartz’ is likely a character of note as our singer depicts someone who is successful but suffers from the regular identity crisis that creative outlets appear to promote. Lines like “Mr. Schwartz is stayin’ strong for the crew, Wardrobe’s lint-rollin’ your velveteen suit and smudgin’ dubbin’ on your dancin’ shoes” paint a picture of affluence and status. It is then followed up with “And if we guess who I am pretending to be, do we win a prize?” which seems to come close to acknowledging that our subject is putting a face on, not quite themselves in their appearance to the world. This could reflect how our great Alex Turner is feeling. He likes to pose questions and leave clues through the stories that underpin his work; but he always remains quite aloof, and perhaps that’s why we like him so.
We finish the LP with a short song, that lightly touches on a lot of themes throughout the album. ‘Perfect Sense’ is a hopeful and upbeat, yet still sentimental, song which sees out the orchestral entourage in a real conclusive tone. This is where our end credits start to roll for the film that does not exist – but perhaps someone will make it one day? Its titillating string section pulls us along for a final gallivant around the crafted instrumentation that have marked this album with timeless sounds. A splendid feeling arises as you listen to the lines “if that’s what it takes to say goodnight” which really does bid adieu to the audience. Off the back of their tour in 2019, the band wanted to create something of a show-closer and perhaps we get this here. It’s gracious in its execution, with a swell that is not too much, but more rounded. It carries the listener home for the final few bars. For me, it’s the eloquent introspective line “Sometimes, I wrap my head around it all, and it makes perfect sense” which just encapsulates so nicely the feelings of fleeting clarity that we all feel sometimes.
The band have successfully completed their excursion through another critique of the human condition. It’s grand, complex, considered, mature, inquisitive, and conceptual. Another thematically bold album is presented here with a morphing of genres, which is dynamic and therefore interesting and engaging throughout.