Review: Arctic Monkeys continue to evolve on gorgeous, melancholy new album ‘The Car’

"I had big ideas, the band were so excited, the kind you’d rather not share over the phone," Alex Turner sings midway through Arctic Monkeys' seventh album. "But now the orchestra’s got us all surrounded and I cannot for the life of me remember how they go." For those wishing that the Arctic Monkeys 2018 album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was a quick vacation before returning to the arena rock grandeur of AM, you're out of luck. They've extended their stay, gotten comfortable and called in redecorators. Or as bassist Nick O’Malley told MOJO, “It’s definitely not just four people playing indie music any more.”

The Car is even more luxuriously loungey than Tranquility Base, trading in synthesizers for an actual string section that surrounds them on nearly all 10 of the album's songs. “Rather than strings on top of rock,” Turner told The Guardian, “I was interested in switching the ‘rock band’ bit on and off.” There are swooping discotheque strings and soulful orchestra hits, but most of The Car is dripping with autumnal violins and cello that ache of regret, heartbreak and melancholy.

The breakup vibes are strong. "So if you wanna walk me to the car you ought to know I’ll have a heavy heart," Turner sings on opening cut "There'd Better Be a Mirrorball," a song devastatingly gorgeous enough to stand up to Burt Bacharach or Marvin Gaye comparisons. When Turner goes into falsetto at the end of the song's next line -- "I’m sure to have a heavy heart so can we please be absolutely sure that there’s a mirrorball...for me" -- and the strings swirl around him, there's not a dry eye in the house.

This may be the biggest difference on The Car: where Tranquility Base committed to its sci-fi setting and obsession with technology, Turner is lyrically back on earth, watching starry dreams fizzle and burn on reentry. "Really, it’s been a thrill," he declares on "Big Ideas," a song that's definitely about a band, though whether it's his own is up for debate. Turner is a sardonic lyricist with a sharp eye for character and scene; like Stephen Malkmus, he writes songs that are open for interpretation and often obtuse -- "Lego Napoleon movie written in noble gas-filled glass tubes underlined in sparks" -- but the details are vivid, memorable and quotable.

These 10 songs play like gorgeously shot vignettes, every inch of the frame filled with emotion, humor, metatextual commentary and lots of references to "The Business they call Show," especially film. Sometimes all those things at once: "Jet skis on the moat, they shot it all in CinemaScope as though it’s the last time you’re gonna ride." The sweeping arrangements of these songs are just as cinematic, with nods to Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schifrin, David Axelrod and John Barry. Much of The Car has the doomed romance of a Bond Theme, just in less exotic locales, with Turner fully in his element as golden-voiced crooner. Speaking of: Arctic Monkeys should absolutely do a Bond Theme.

This may sound as far from their AM days as the moon, but if you peel back the layers, we're still in familiar musical territory. You can trace a direct line from this album back to "No. 1 Party Anthem," it's just the arrangements, the delivery that are different. Example: the live version of "I Ain't Quite Where I Think I Am," recorded at Brooklyn's Kings Theater in September, is much more an AM-style song in this setting, with the strings gone and more guitar added. Both are terrific. The baroque title track, full of timpani drums and harpsichords, also has the album's most searing solo.

Would The Car be better as more of a rock record? Maybe a more popular one but it's hard to argue against the magisterial faded glamor of tracks like "Mirrorball," "Big Ideas," and "Jet Skis on the Moat" where the heart-tugging orchestration matches so well with turner's falsetto-forward delivery. The album is not devoid of guitars either. The aforementioned "I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am" has the swagger of prime Curtis Mayfield, and "Sculptures Of Anything Goes" is new territory for Arctic Monkeys, all gleaming, simmering analogue synths, still very rock, while Turner is the epitome of cocksure cool with lines like "How am I supposed to manage my infallible beliefs while I’m sockin’ it to ya?"

Two of The Car's best songs come in the third act. "Hello You" is a flip through Hollywood trade mag gossip pages and a long sober look in the mirror, armed with a killer keyboard hook and some particularly crispy guitar licks as the song follows a pinup star who is on the far edge of his prime but is "still dragging out a long goodbye" while trying to convince himself he "could pass for seventeen if I just get a shave and catch some Zs." It's the best of new and old Arctic Monkeys. Then there's "Mr Schwartz," a suave bossa nova number that features another fallen star, a decade or two further on, that is perfect execution of tone, style, and detail.

Is this Turner looking into his future? Maybe. At 36, he's still plenty young and clearly Arctic Monkeys remain in their prime, but The Car also feels like he's plotted a solid retirement plan. The final lines of the album, from the swaying "Perfect Sense": "Keep reminding me that it ain’t a race when my invincible streak turns onto the final straight. If that’s what it takes to say goodnight then that’s what it takes."


Pick up The Car, and other Arctic Monkeys albums, on vinyl in the BV shop.



Arctic Monkeys The Car