‘The Car’ is a journey in Arctic Monkeys’ new sound

Ganesh Pillai/The Miscellany News.

As I walked along the path to the Deece, listening to the Arctic Monkeys’ seventh studio album, “The Car,” I saw a crow land on the tip of a fourth-floor Noyes window, perched and looking out onto the Circle. I took out my phone to capture the image, turning back to see it flying away. As muses go, this felt pretty typical. However, in relation to the album I was listening to, it felt more significant than the ordinary just-missed-it moment. The idea of change, of a past that feels so distant from the present that, like a bird flying away as you pull out your camera, feels uncapturable. Yes, the Arctic Monkeys is the band that made generational rock hits like “When the Sun Goes Down” or “505” and iconic ballads like “Do I Wanna Know?” And yes, it’s that very same band that released another spacey concept album on Oct. 21 of this year. But no, they don’t care if you don’t like their new sound. Like a bird flying away, the band acknowledges their former place as genre-defining rock and rollers, but they are on to new and exciting things.

 

“Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino,” the band’s sixth studio album released in 2018, prioritized ambience with a stripped-back, resonant sound fit for a hotel in space, not for hectic grunge basements like its older projects might have been. It was the Monkeys’ first album in five years, following the widely-listened “AM” that debuted in 2013 to widespread radio playing and fandom. “AM” may have substituted the group’s acoustic, raw aesthetic for a more electronic, mainstream  one, but it still retained the harder, rocking elements that made the Arctic Monkeys so popular. This album is undoubtedly their most commercially successful, and so to follow it up with a project of entirely different sound—one explicitly crying out to be listened to in far more low-key, personal settings—was surprising to many. While most, including myself, overcame the initial shock and surprise in order to appreciate the project for the psychedelic, toned-down soundtrack that it is, a general desire for the band to return to their old sound remains. Enter “The Car,” in which songwriter and frontman Alex Turner addresses these issues directly, in keeping with the band’s new sound in daring and fascinating ways.

 

The project’s opening track, “There’d Better Be a Mirrorball,” sounds like it could have easily fit onto its predecessor album. With Matt Helders’ relaxed, nonchalant ride symbol-tapping groove, the track is a slow, spacey stroll onto the ensuing musical journey. The track introduces the idea of the titular car, meant to symbolize change throughout the album. In the intro, Turner is lamenting the end of a relationship he is desperately trying to keep alive. “So do you wanna walk me to the car?/ I’m sure to have a heavy heart/ So can we please be absolutely sure/ That there’s a mirrorball for me?” The walk to the car represents the end of this connection, and so the “mirrorball” Turner is pining for is also symbolic – he’s asking for one last dance. In this sense, he is dealing with change by desperately seeking closure in any way possible, even by hoping for a situation as improbable as finding a disco ball in a parked car.

 

The car as symbolism for change continues on “Jet Skis on the Moat,” in which the titular vehicle gets a paint job. This upgrade also represents a change, this time one far more gradual. This could allude to the band’s adopting of new sounds and aesthetics, about which Turner not-so-subtlety queries, “Is there somethin’ on your mind/ Or you happy to just sit there and watch/ While the paint job dries?” If this addressing of audience was not obvious enough, Turner’s most explicit recollection of the band’s contrasting sounds comes on the album’s seventh track, “Big Ideas.” Referencing the group’s transition from making music that was widely adored to that of a far more niche enjoyment, widespread only in its controversy, Turner croons “We had them out of their seats/ Wavin’ their arms and stompin’ their feet/ Some just hysterical scenes/ The ballad of what could have been.” The ballad in this case, of course, being the trajectory of the band had it simply continued with its vintage sound, which has continually proven to be more widely-appealing than the group’s more psychedelic efforts.

 

This cohesive motif of change is emblematic of one of the album’s biggest strengths: the depth of its songwriting and subject matter. “The Car” is a swirling, reflective look at a meteoric rise to fame, and the toll that stardom in this line of work can take. Each song feels like a distinct snapshot of a specific feeling or sentiment that Turner associates with the group and its relation to the music industry. On the upbeat, groovy “Hello You,” Turner laments the money-centric nature of the entertainment industry, pitting the group as the counter to this corporate ethos. Going on to using the titular car to take a true trip down memory lane, he asserts, “This electric warrior’s motorcade/ Shall burn no more rubber down that boulevard,” implicitly referencing the band’s more hard-hitting rock sound. “The Car” boasts carefully crafted and clever lyricism throughout the project, each metaphor an exercise in meticulous songwriting. Aside from the excellent vehicular representation driving each track forward, Turner is able to perfectly convey these potentially difficult-to-discern sentiments through expert use of comparison and symbols. For example, on the very “AM”-sounding “Sculptures Of Anything Goes,” the abstract but telling title expanded upon to describe the group’s future musical output, which, like sculptures, takes an idea and molds it into something befitting with the artist’s image, underlaid by a firm material. The group may not know exactly what is to come, but it has a vision, and it is something it wholeheartedly intends to explore to fruition.

 

The diversity of sound on this album also makes this release one of the band’s strongest to date and an improved follow-up to the group’s initial foray into this new sound. While I can appreciate the layered, atmospheric production of “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino,” “The Car” has those elements even more fine-tuned, interlaid with even more sonic influences. “Body Paint” feels more familiar in its bare, vocal-centric sound, while tracks like “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am” feature groovy bass lines and bouncy, upbeat rhythms.

 

In contending with this diversity of sounds, this contrasting of styles and clashing of aesthetics, Turner and the band have a lot of memories to reflect on, a lot of change already having occured, with more ripples still likely to be felt. It could prove to be a lot to deal with, but heartwarmingly, on the album’s concluding track, Turner sings, “Sometimes, I wrap my head around it all / And it all makes sense.” If this album is the group’s way of telling us, the fans, that it’s time to acknowledge the change in style we may have been trying to ignore, then acceptance is the word. It’s time to move on, to have enough respect for a group that has provided fans with so many memories. It’s about allowing the band the privilege of doing so in the future in good conscience, in ways that feel genuine and true to them, as all music creators should be afforded the right to do.“The Car” is an incredibly joyful listen because it’s not simply a goodbye, signifying the end of something, but a “bon voyage,” a continuation of the musical exploits of a group so talented that it can entirely change sounds, and still be adored by millions upon millions. As “The Car” proves, sometimes the best way to react to change is to have the unwavering faith that whatever comes anew is worth it.

 

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