Arctic Monkeys

The Car

The latest from Alex Turner & co. finds the group stepping out in grand style with results amongst their very best, finds Fergal Kinney

“Don’t get emotional,” sings Alex Turner in the very first lines of new album The Car, “that ain’t like you.” And it isn’t. Across six previous Arctic Monkeys records – and two further, more uneven Last Shadow Puppets outings – Turner’s work has been a sometimes astounding, sometimes infuriating exercise in obscurantism. As cryptic a songwriter as he is a hesitant interviewee, even Turner’s most conventionally straightforward love song is a a lucid dream of romantic Cluedo.

Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 debut was part of a lineage of Saturday night and Sunday morning British records which includes The Specials’ debut and The Streets’ Original Pirate Material. Or was it a eulogy to that lineage? Ever since that moment, it’s felt increasingly unlikely that four lads would ever again shake the world. Though it defined their career globally, you can ask the same question about 2013’s AM. That album was a sunglasses indoors fantasy of “that rock’n’roll” – as Turner termed it in his infamous, and still puzzling, 2014 Brit Awards speech – which caught the public imagination in a way that might seem less plausible a few years later.

Later that decade, the political and cultural climate would demand that artists – whether sincerely or paying lip service – spoke to a changing moment. During years of attrition, the Sheffield four-piece emerged remarkably unscathered – be it from being caught sheltering £1.1 million as part of the Liberty tax avoidance scheme, indulging in like-punk-never-happened rock star cringe or Turner’s Last Shadow Puppets partner Miles Kane propositioning a female music journalist mid-interview (a duo in which the talent is so unevenly distributed that were it a structure, it would simply collapse.)

When 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino arrived, amongst that album’s multiple surprises was that Turner seemed, for the first time, aware that there was a world around him. Where his lyrics had for some time been almost exclusively amorous advances towards various models conducted with differing degrees of ellipticity, suddenly amongst that album’s smorgasbord of surreal of-the-moment images was the songwriter swimming with economists, fantasising about Presidential runs and floating on a barge of prestige television. Just what was going on? That left turn was rewarded, too, by becoming the fastest-selling vinyl album in the UK since the Major government. As such, Arctic Monkeys are in the unique career sweet spot of having an audience nostalgic for their old work whilst also genuinely exhilarated about the prospect of new material.

Where, reportedly, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino had at one point been considered as a Turner solo run, The Car could have equally been conceived as such. Written and demoed extensively in private, Turner and longstanding producer-collaborator James Ford then drafted string arrangements to be completed by the music supervisor and cinema score coordinator Bridget Samuels, who has worked on Midsommar and Under The Skin.

Whether framing Turner’s vocal in stained glass or offering throbbing dramatic counterpart, the orchestration which is central to The Car is beyond the conventional indie band meets orchestra affair. On the face of it, Turner and Ford have been listening to David Axelrod, the hot buttered soul of Isaac Hayes late 60s and early 70s records, and the sweeping ecstasy of Jean-Claude Vannier. In this, it’s a rococo symphonic fever dream not too distant from SAULT’s Air album earlier this year. Where the Scott Walker pastiches on the two Last Shadow Puppets albums could feel heavy handed, in this album’s more stationary moments it evokes the wintry impressionism of Scott 3 and 4, all interchangeable affairs in interchangeable cities. “Some dusty apartment, the whatsitcalled cafe,” coos Turner on the standout title track, “you arrive at eleven and have lunch with the English.”

Form, on The Car, matches function as the record’s lyrical allusions to gaudy opulence – chandeliers, marble staircases, travel sized champagne – are reinforced by the five star luxury of the string section. That it opens with a break-up song – the grandiose melancholy of ‘There’d Better Be a Mirrorball’ – irreversibly infects the whole album, undercutting the songs of romantic promise and illicit communion with a fatal portent of doom. When at the album’s denouement, Turner returns to lovers saying goodbye, it feels rewardingly complete.

Whilst the Thin White plastic soul groove of ‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’ is good, the album’s orchestral set piece events are far better, underlining that this is a group historically at their best when fleeing a sound they’ve done before. The baroque ‘Body Paint’, with its stately, McCartney-esque chorus, will endure as one of the standout moments in the Turner catalogue.

A key Turner trope, at this stage, is the hard-bitten, washed up entertainer. He was all over Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, and the singer’s stage persona, and the finger-picked, introspective ‘Mr Schwartz’ is a masterpiece of this form. A character sketch of an actor making his directorial debut amidst personal crisis, “staying strong for the crew,” it provides Turner’s writing with an adult depth hitherto untapped on previous records. The terrific R&B falsetto utilised throughout the record has been heard on Arctic Monkeys releases before, but on the purring ‘Big Ideas’, his vocal finds a sleazy desperation – where he has previously sounded, well, smug – that’s redolent of Jarvis Cocker on This Is Hardcore’s most unclean corners. Even the Rubix Cube puzzlers that have been a feature of Turner’s writing since at least 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare have grown up, as the album’s stately curtain call ‘Perfect Sense’ begins with the words “Richard of York: The Executive Branch / Having some fun with the warm-up act.”

If Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino arrived as an outlier, The Car suggests that their actually existing rock music period is firmly in the Cadillac’s rear view mirror. Turner has spoken in interviews about wanting “to turn the rock band on and off” across this record. When guitars do appear, it’s strictly in quotation marks. What is that sound you hear? It’s the sound of “that rock’n’roll” now failing to smash through Turner’s apocryphal glass ceiling (“looking better than ever.”)

In a back catalogue with no bona fide duds, critical consensus on the creative – rather than commercial – peaks of Arctic Monkeys’ back catalogue can be tricky. A case can be made for the transitional albums, like 2011’s at ease with itself Suck It And See. The Car, however – in which a songwriter matures and finds an unexpected emotional range – is sure ultimately to be ranked in the band’s very top tier.

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