Before we discuss The Car — the seventh Arctic Monkeys album out Friday — let’s review the band’s recent history in order to understand how we got here. Buckle up: It’s an arduous and convoluted trek across three records and at least as many different personas.
In 2013, they put out their fifth LP, AM. It begins with a song, “Do I Wanna Know?,” that goes on to be streamed (to date) nearly 1.5 billion times on Spotify, making it the most culturally relevant rock track of the last 10 years. The following year, Arctic Monkeys win Album Of The Year at the Brit Awards. Upon accepting the trophy, Alex Turner makes a smirking, self-congratulatory speech about how rock ‘n’ roll will always “make its way back through the sludge” in order to “smash through the glass ceiling, looking better than ever.” It is not clear if he really means this, or if he is merely playing a “charismatically louche” character. Either way, in that moment, he is indisputably the biggest British rock star of his generation.
Four years later, Arctic Monkeys put out their sixth album, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino. It does not sound like AM. Nor does it sound like rock ‘n’ smashing through a glass ceiling. Turner no longer resembles a sexed-up nü-Fonzie who makes music appropriate for barbecue restaurants and medium-shelf rum commercials. Instead, he produces a record of hilariously surreal sci-fi torch songs. Tranquility Base is a Kubrickian black comedy in which the sensibility of Dr. Strangelove is transposed on 2001. Predictably, a lot of people hate it. Others, however, consider it the best album of 2018.
This brings us to The Car. Anyone who listens to this album once will instantly compare it to the previous Arctic Monkeys LP. This is not entirely unfounded. As was the case with Tranquility, The Car is fashioned in large part by Turner, by himself, away from the band. He writes alone, plays and records most of the instrumentation alone, and then reworks what he’s done alone. Only at the end of the process does he bring in the other three guys. The inevitable result is that Tranquility Base and The Car both sound like solo records released under a highly bankable brand.
What’s most shocking about The Car is that it proves Tranquility Base was not an experiment — that record marked what is currently a prolonged turn away from rock music. Turner has instead delved deep into 1960s West Coast pop and ’70s porno funk. At the risk of making an overly obvious comparison, The Car is Arctic Monkeys’ Young Americans, a British take on American Black music that manages to express a purely European point of view.
All of this is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t account for how the two most recent Arctic Monkeys records feel. They feel very different. Tranquility Base is chilly and overtly comedic; The Car is warmer and also sadder. The sixth record is obsessed with a fictional future (though it feels less fictional four years later); the seventh album is focused on a real (though exaggerated) past. The result is that the former signifies visionary outrageousness while the latter exudes romantic melancholy.
Turner once tried to reinvent his band; now he seems to have outgrown it. The predecessor was a surprising chapter; the new one feels like an ending. The sludge has not been transcended; it now is home.
I understand that for many people who love the first five Arctic Monkeys records — especially AM, by far their most popular in America — this might all come across as disappointing and even frustrating. For this audience, a word of advice: Assume that the band who made AM is dead and buried, and might not be coming back. Not literally (at least not at this point), but certainly in practice. Think back to the classic opening lyric from Tranquility Base: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes / now look at the mess you made me make.” What came across as a joke before can now be taken at face value. Wanting to be like one of The Strokes is a past-tense aspiration for Turner. These last two records are him experiencing the afterlife of that, and sorting through the leftover detritus.
Getting to the bottom of this requires doing your own sifting through wah-wah guitars, foggy string sections, and reams of absurdist non-sequiturs. The heart of The Car resides between those lines. On the slinky “Jet Skis On The Moat,” Turner purrs, “When it’s over, you’re supposed to know.” Amid the dead-eyed Muzak of “Big Ideas,” one of several tracks that uses old-timey show business allusions as metaphors for exhausted relationships, he imagines producing a film called “The Ballad Of What Could Have Been.” The wistful retro pop tune “Mr. Schwartz” reiterates that idea, with Turner concluding that it’s “as fine a time as any to deduce the fact that neither you or I has ever had a clue.”
When The Car does drift into rock, the record receives a necessary jolt. The lounge-y “Body Paint” deals in references to ancient songs by Elvis Presley and Gerry And The Pacemakers before radically shifting to a rousing Mott The Hoople-style glam-rock climax, an “All The Young Dudes” for dudes who are no longer young. There is no sense of uplift on the title track, the album’s best song, in which cloudy orchestral folk flourishes give way to a tortured guitar solo. But it does function as The Car‘s emotional center. “Thinking about how funny I must look trying to adjust to what’s been there all along,” Turner sings, sounding nothing like the cocksure superstar who accepted that Brit Award eight years ago, but rather a 36-year-old man who used to play that guy on TV.
Reading rock lyrics as tea leaves spelling out a band’s future existence is an easy way to embarrass yourself. I’m not suggesting that Turner is on the verge of breaking up the band and going out officially on his own. But what seems clear is that Turner has definitively moved on from his most commercially successful guise, and is now fully invested in his post-rock star career. And in the process he’s written some of his wittiest and wisest tunes. “Is that vague sense of longing kinda trying to cause a scene?” he sings on The Car‘s most dread-inducing number, “Sculptures Of Anything Goes.” These days for Arctic Monkeys, it’s more about the longing than the scene.