Arctic Monkeys have been adamant about crafting their catalog on their own terms — how many bands would follow up one of their most accessible and commercially successful LPs (2013’s AM) with a bizarre, wonky concept album about a luxury resort on the moon? 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was undoubtedly a turning point for the Sheffield quartet, with frontman Alex Turner taking more stylistic liberties than ever before on an Arctic Monkeys album and digging his heels in a more open-ended, collage-like structure. There were lyrics about gentrifying a space colony, a song called “The Ultracheese,” unreliable narrators, and a rambling energy that painted the band’s nostalgic psychedelia and lounge pop in a fascinating light.
After four years, Arctic Monkeys return again with their seventh studio album, The Car (arriving this Friday, October 21st). The album is sonically aligned with the slow-burning psych pop of Tranquility Base, the band farther away than ever from the tense post-punk or bluesy garage rock that characterized much of their output pre-2018. Orchestral flourishes, though not overwhelmingly frequent, give many of The Car’s songs a classic feel, while Turner’s vocal persona evokes a midlife crisis David Bowie.
But the new Arctic Monkeys album hardly comes with a “bang” — The Car is not a return to form that many fans would have hoped for, nor is it the abrupt left turn that Tranquility Base boasted. Instead, The Car is a bit of a sigh; a suspended act of melancholy, occasionally flat and occasionally brilliant, that finds the band working with a soft, moody palette that hardly ever threatens to evolve. Though there are some intriguing highlights, The Car isn’t anywhere near the evocative heights that Arctic Monkeys have reached throughout their now-storied career — and perhaps that’s the point.
Alex Turner’s biggest thematic motif on The Car is showbiz. There are references to filmmaking, musical theater, directorial debuts, CinemaScope, theme music composition, “performing in Spanish on Italian TV,” the wardrobe department, “having tea with the grips,” and of course, throughout it all, the identity of a musician. Turner has left the sci-fi musings from Tranquility Base behind, and instead chooses to explore our own world with a similarly surrealist candor.
Lead single “There’d Better Be Mirrorball” finds Turner requesting that if a break up is imminent, there’d better be a disco ball in the car waiting for him, he pitches a “Lego Napoleon movie written in noble gas-filled glass tubes” in the first line of “Hello You,” and “Body Paint” features a line that goes, “Do your time traveling through the tanning booth so you don’t let the sun catch you crying.”