When Arctic Monkeys first indicated their seventh studio album The Car would pick up where 2018’s divisive Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino left off, the appropriate response was probably relief. While that album’s startling reinvention of the band – embracing soul, lounge and baroque pop – felt somewhat under-formed, it was at least an exciting idea: the roots of which are identifiable in songs as early as 2009’s ‘Cornerstone’. To see these ambitions abandoned, before being pursued to their fullest, would have been rather sad.
The Car certainly exists on a much grander scale. Bolstered by crisp, confident string arrangements, the production is sumptuous – quickly promising to also be capable of surprises. The sweeping violins on ‘There’d Better Be A Mirrorball’ give way to sultry funk guitar in ‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’, complete with choral stabs reminiscent of Melle Mel’s ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’, before the gritty synth crawl of ‘Sculptures Of Anything Goes’. As in these first songs though, variety in The Car is principally textural. In its pace and structure, it broadly maintains a steady, risk-averse lope.
Lyrically, The Car employs what has become Alex Turner’s signature style: an eclectic sequence of intensely flamboyant one-liners, loaded with niche pop culture references. “The simulation cartridge for City Life ’09 / Is pretty tricky to come by” he croons on ‘Sculptures Of Anything Goes’, referencing a little-known city-builder game. “Village coffee mornings with not-long-since retired spies / Now that’s my idea of a good time” sounds the bewildering follow-up.
The Car’s languid pacing, to its credit, means these lines receive adequate space; each can finish backflipping before the next demands our attention. This constant shifting of focus also supports the degree of world-building that takes place in The Car. This is an album set largely during exotic vacations: we see snorkelling on beaches (‘Hello You’), water sports (‘Jet Skis On The Moat’), hotel notepads (‘Perfect Sense’), faraway islands (‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’) and quaint foreign cafes (‘The Car’). Turner’s lyrical style – like the holidaymaker – moves in a daze; unfixed from home, darting between entertainments.
The problem is that this all feels in service to nothing. While the lines seem erratically welded together, the craftsmanship of each – in its internal euphony and frequent obscurity – may initially sell us on the idea Turner is speaking cryptically about something important. In reality, The Car offers no substantial insights into Turner or the world around him. The “business they call show” (‘Hello You’) is everywhere on this album, but no real assertions are made about it. In ‘Big Ideas’ Turner describes finding The Car’s scale intimidating, but – unlike the previous album’s confession “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes” (‘Star Treatment’) – this moment of self-deprecation doesn’t ring true.
This indicates a broader lack of credible sentiment in The Car. Like the silhouetted women from the opening sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me, Turner’s romantic subjects appear constantly but without detail. The Car’s failure to convey real passion or romantic vulnerability is partially owed to this vagueness, and partially to Turner’s occasionally sterile vocal performances – which aren’t always convincing. When his newly developed falsetto summons the crescendo of ‘There’d Better Be A Mirrorball’, it is glorious. When he attempts the same leap in ‘Body Paint’ (“for a master of deception and subterfuge”), it is hilarious.
In The Car, Arctic Monkeys have succeeded in creating a sonically beautiful, coherent album. Its potential is squandered by a lack of thematic urgency, insight, or sincerity – resulting in an album that can only elicit a very superficial kind of joy.