Arctic Monkeys got weird on their last album. 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was easily the Sheffield group’s most abstract outing, featuring labyrinthine melodies that weaved in and out of each other, Dickensian lyrics written from the perspective of a lounge crooner with slicked-back hair, and a song called “The Ultracheese.” It was quite the left turn, especially after 2013’s AM catapulted them to festival-headlining status and Spotify streams in the hundreds of millions, even for the deep cuts. Although Tranquility’s risks mostly paid off, frontman Alex Turner, in his own words, wanted to return “back to Earth” for its follow-up, The Car. But the indie rockers’ latest, albeit more grounded than its predecessor, isn’t exactly all terra firma. If this is Arctic Monkeys’ return to Earth, then they must live in the stratosphere.
The 10 songs that make up The Car are certainly more hummable than something like, say, “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip,” but they still maintain the eccentricities and lounge-y milieu that made Tranquility so distinct within the grander context of their work. For instance, Turner’s warbling delivery is still front and center. Yacht-rock piano and strings reign supreme. Drummer Matt Helders exercises an impressive degree of self-restraint, given the fact that he’s also the man playing on songs like “Brianstorm” and “Pretty Visitors.”
One new ingredient, however, is the wah-wah guitar, which completely steals the show on “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am,” perhaps The Car’s catchiest offering. Its more subtle use on the late-album highlight “Hello You” recalls the muted, pitch-shifted fuzz of Tame Impala’s Lonerism. In “Jet Skis on the Moat,” the wah-wah shares space with tremolo-induced organ chords. In the album’s press materials, Turner says he “stepped away from the piano for a moment” to incorporate more wah-wah guitar, but that’s not entirely true. Aside from a handful of tracks, including the above aforementioned, wah guitar is almost nowhere to be found. The Car, by and large, is another Arctic Monkeys piano album, and that’s not necessarily to its detriment.
It’s legitimately a joy to hear this band lean into their more recondite side, picking up where they left off four years ago. Throughout The Car, Arctic Monkeys still resemble the alt-rock version of the cantina band from the Star Wars films. Once again, they’ve worked with producer James Ford, who has been collaborating with the band since their sophomore record, 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare. Ford’s stylizations have evolved alongside the Monkeys’, increasingly embracing velveteen fashions and relinquishing punkish ones.
Together, they’ve gone from bratty alt-rock, to desert psychedelia, to leather-clad stadium rockers and, now, to their current era: weird shit. Now, mind you, Arctic Monkeys absolutely excel at this weird shit, a mode they inhabit effectively in both their instrumentation and lyrics. Take the opening line of “Hello You”: “Lego Napoleon movie written in noble gas-filled glass tubes underlined in sparks.” It’s a carnivalesque opening statement that would sound horridly clunky coming from anyone other than Turner, who miraculously pulls it off with aplomb.
Much like Tranquility, Turner’s lyrics are largely cryptic. They come across as linguistic puzzle boxes that you can solve only through trial and error. “Jet Skis on the Moat,” from its title alone, revels in its equivocality. “Jet skis on the moat / They shot it all in CinemaScope / As though it’s the last time you’re gonna ride,” Turner lilts in the song’s understated chorus. On the penultimate tune, “Mr Schwartz,” it’s almost as if the Monkeys acknowledge how parsing their recent work can be a fruitless endeavor: “Gradually it’s coming into view / It’s like your little directorial debut / As fine a time as any to deduce the fact that neither you or I has ever had a clue.” Still, just as The Car is billed as a return to Earth, some of its tracks lend themselves better to a more straightforward reading.
Opener and lead single “There’d Better Be a Mirrorball” documents a romantic relationship fraying at its edges. “You’re getting cynical, and that won’t do / I’d throw the rose tint back on the exploded view,” Turner tells his lover, who’s growing uninterested in him by the minute. “Body Paint” follows an illicit love affair from the jilted partner’s perspective. “I’m watching your every move / I feel the tears are coming on,” Turner trills in a rare moment of earnest vulnerability. It’s out of character for the swoon-inducing frontman to be the one not, for lack of a better phrase, stealing your girl. Having shed the stomping greaser anthems of the AM period, there’s come a hint of solemn expression, however slight that may be. It’s a notion Turner himself alludes to in “Mirrorball.” “Don’t get emotional / That ain’t like you,” he sings in its opening moments. On the surface, he’s speaking to his aloof paramour. On another level, he’s speaking to himself.
The first time I saw Arctic Monkeys perform live, they played “I Wanna Be Yours,” AM’s affecting closer. A disco ball descended from the rafters, casting a speckled, outdoor light show akin to raindrops on a windowpane. Donning sunglasses at night, Turner conjured retro imagery of Ford Cortinas and punk poet John Cooper Clarke. There was something about the disco ball that felt passé, yet, as Arctic Monkeys often do, this band transformed a once-antiquated object into something with modern panache. In song, they’ve achieved a similar effect with the mirrorball, a disco ball prototype. Let it be known that these English lads love traveling to the past, retrofitting classic iconography with their futuristic inclinations. After all, it’s an approach they’ve built their name on, gradually becoming a group that sells out stadiums in mere minutes. On The Car, they deploy Fitzgeraldian tendencies, throwing a party with a lingering, enigmatic atmosphere. As long as there’s a mirror ball, you can be assured a fun time.
Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City. He has contributed to MTV News, Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, SPIN and others. Follow him on Twitter @grantsharpies.