Arctic Monkeys: The Car
LP | CD | DL
Out 21st October 2022
Arctic Monkeys are back with album number seven, The Car, a triumphant return to Earth steeped in lush orchestrations and imagery.
The writing was on the wall years ago. Who the fuck are Arctic Monkeys? They may have been catapulted into the limelight with spitfire garage-rock licks and straight-to-the-heart tales of teenage nights out, but they were never going to be content to sit in one mould. They said so themselves, a message to us all back on their 2006 EP: “Everybody’s got their box and doing what they’re told…We’ll stick to the guns. Don’t care if it’s marketing suicide. We won’t crack or compromise…And bring on the backlash.” It was a message to their own future, an unwillingness to play the game, to be pigeonholed. And the trajectory that that attitude has taken them on has seen them shift and twist through styles, surpassing their peers and early influences in a way that they could never have dreamed of back when they were laying down those early demos at the hands of Alan Smyth in Sheffield’s 2-Fly studios, tucked into a 25 square-metre room at the base of an old mill within spitting distance of Bramall Lane.
In the years since then, there has been no implosion of bitterness, no dream lying in tatters after trying to chase a lost romantic image of Albion, no attempts to recreate the impact of a career-defining debut to gradually diminishing creative and commercial returns. “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make.” Alex Turner sang as the opening line of their divisive last album. Those early influences were not simply a springboard for the band, but the spark that lit the fuel to send them soaring to the stars. What had started out as Ken Loach-style tales of kitchen sink dramas became possessed by Kubrick, Scott, Ballard, Postman, Huxley and Orwell. On their last album, the street poet that so many had taken to their hearts had become a social commentator gazing at planet Earth from outer space, our modern condition under his telescope. For many though, it was not simply this lyrical departure that saw them buckle, but the way that the band, and, of course, specifically Turner, had set that more bombastic big riff indie rock completely to one side, their desert-rock journey complete, to soak up Bowie, Gainsbourg and Walker. The result was one majestic handbrake left turn.
But perhaps we were simply not paying close enough attention. It was easy to miss the breadcrumbs that they had been sporadically scattering throughout their albums when encased in the pounding beats of Matt Helders, the equal parts of shimmer and fuzz in the duelling guitars of Turner and Jaime Cook. Forget the indie-dancefloor anthems. On the release of the first song from The Car, There’d Better Be A Mirrorball, it seems that they were simply sights to take in while Turner led the band on his true path, through, among others, 505, Cornerstone, No. 1 Party Anthem, the live performance of which provided one of the clearest signposts to their current destination. And then there was Turner’s Last Of The Shadow Puppets’ side-project: all drew a sonic map that led them to their Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino and, just as with the release of Humbug, subverted what we had come to expect from them.
Looking back now, we should have known.
So where exactly are they now? After drifting back to Earth, the answer is somewhere quite special, Turner returning to his more romantic self, as evident on There’d Better Be A Mirrorball, which opens the album. It yearns beautifully across the harpsichord and strings, setting the tone for a rich and almost cinematic piece completely indebted to Scott Walker. In recent interviews, Alex Turner has waxed lyrical about the impact of the book In The Blink Of An Eye by Walter Murch, editor of Apocalypse Now, on his way of thinking about the recording process for The Car, the way to fade in and out parts of the music, the final piece constructed in the editing room rather than entering the studio with a clear and set idea from the outset.
That cinematic influence is a concept that comes through right from the cover photo, taken by Matt Helders, begging the question as to the story behind that solitary car, and is reinforced in the videos for both …Mirrorball (directed by Turner himself) and second single Body Paint, with its abstract imagery, cutting room clips, and wonderful diorama effect. The song itself revels in the influence of Paul Buckmaster and the work he did with Bowie and Cohen around the turn of the ’70s, with string arrangements acting as counter melodies to dramatic effect rather than simply an accompaniment. In those arrangements, which ground and focus many of the songs on the album, Alex Turner, aided by producer James Ford and composer Bridget Samuels, is proving himself to be an incredibly versatile songwriter, one learning and developing their craft in the public eye. And then there’s his voice, one now settled in a soulful croon, dramatic pauses giving way to gliding falsettos that give life to his now abstract observations.
But, like every great writer and director, their best work is not created in isolation and that is where the rest of the band show their true importance in steering them to their current creative heights. Those tempted to define it as a Turner solo effort would do well to focus on how the band have also developed that necessary skill of always playing to the song. As a foil to Turner, Jaime Cook has long known how to compliment the arrangements and, in a recent interview with Ruta 66, Turner commented on the guitarist’s willingness to experiment with his sound and role within the band.
Shorn of expectation, they find room to explore more dramatic soundscapes, such as on Sculptures Of Anything Goes, the seed of the song sown by Cook’s experiments with a Moog. It drifts in a retro-futuristic vibe over a deep droning electronic undercurrent, finding Turner dissecting the gulf between reality and falsehood with lyrics about “blank canvasses lent on gallery walls”, a fresh thematic focus that he combines with a return to self-reflection. When the guitars kick the strings to one side, like when the solo on Body Paint hits or on the funk-wah of I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am, they’re mining mid-70s Bowie without qualms or restraint, a clear intention to dismiss the idea of pastiche. Elsewhere they crash in with sudden symphonic blasts. They are moments that might claw back some of those that didn’t sign up for the space trip four years ago, but anyone looking for a return to the bite and punch of their early albums will still be left wanting. And that’s no bad thing at all.
On the album’s title track, they are on firm Bacharach ground as it equally sweeps and shuffles along, pristine and beautifully delicate. But nowhere are they more plaintive than on the wonderful Mr Schwartz, a song that sees Turner once again embarking on a character study, his voice, as on much of the album, pushed right to the fore. A sly reference back to his dancing shoes slips in amongst the idea of one man “staying strong for the crew”, a singular direction guided by one hand yet taking all along for the ride.
On The Car, the band are pushing their own boundaries, continuing to defy expectations, and have created an album that deserves to be listened to as one piece, cinematic in theme and scope. Who the fuck are Arctic Monkeys? The answer is clear: whoever the fuck they want to be. Turner has recently indicated that the guitars have not been completely packed away and that, while he is always looking to grow and develop, they might, in the future, return in a big way. But just remember what they warned about anticipation.
Words by Nathan Whittle. Find his Louder Than War archive here.
Nathan also presents From The Garage on Louder Than War Radio every Tuesday at 8pm. Tune in for an hour of fuzz-crunching garage rock ‘n’ roll and catch up on all shows on the From The Garage Mixcloud playlist.
You may have won me round on this one – looking forward to listening to it tomorrow when it’s out