by Jacob Wingate-Bishop
Let me save you the trouble. I don’t like The Car. I’ve never really been a fan of the Arctic Monkeys (even their early stuff), I don’t share the view that Alex Turner is some modern-day Bob Dylan, and I don’t entertain the idea that their stuff is, on some deeper level, genius. It really isn’t. Yours sincerely, everyone that’s sick to death of hearing about them like they’re the 21st century’s answer to The Beatles.
I wanted to like The Car. Reviews – both professionally and personally – have been polarizing already. For every friend I have that loves the album, labelling it the Monkeys’ magnum opus, there’s another who finds it pretentious, or just plain dull. Being on the internet lately, especially for fans of music, has meant to some degree participating in the mass hysteria of a new Monkeys album. And with a cover and title as simple as The Car boasts – as well as a legacy for shifting musical direction – the hype makes sense.
The album, as many have noted, builds on the sound of the Monkeys’ previous work, 2018’s Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino. It’s somewhere between speakeasy pop and jazz, with a little Bond theme soul thrown into the mix. A lot of the songs are relatively sparse in structure, with focus on frontman Alex Turner’s piano and vocals.
The Car’s opener, ‘There’d Better Be a Mirrorball’ is a haunting composition, like Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ if you turned the brightness down into the negative. ‘Don’t get emotional/ That’s not like you…’ Turner sings soulfully into the microphone. If only I experienced any real emotion listening to the album. The problem isn’t necessarily the song itself, but the fact it’s the same track copied and pasted for the remainder of the record. The words change, but it’s the same, lifeless vacuum of a hit.
Too often on the album, thoughtful string arrangements and interesting, moodier set pieces serve as little more than momentary flashes of colour against an otherwise monotone backdrop. It’s not long before we crash back into the familiar, drudging rhythm of the kind of music middle-class executives in armchairs listen to whilst flicking through the newspaper. The Car feels like dingey art pop for dingey art pop’s sake.
But that’s not to say there aren’t those flickers of brilliance throughout The Car. ‘Body Paint’, one of the chosen singles, and ‘Big Ideas’ show the promises of something truly profound. It’s difficult to shrug off the common belief that Turner is a masterful songwriter when he wants to be. But then the band offload ‘Mr Schwartz’ on us, or the weary dreariness of the album’s title track, and I’m back to wishing I was literally anywhere else.
The album clocks in at roughly 37 minutes in length. Interestingly, another record I discovered recently, Let the Festivities Begin! by Los Bitchos, has the same runtime. One of those albums is over a half hour of easy-going, addictive pop rock with influences from all over the world, and no vocals at all. The other is a pretentious, unending cycle of beige noise. I’ll let you decide which is which.
The Car is better than Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino. That album boasted not a single track to which I would dare listen again and yet here, I was pleasantly surprised at the handful of times I found myself nearly drawn to the dark, brooding delights of the Monkeys’ executive lounge. That’s not really saying much, though. It’s the musical equivalent of choosing angina over the bubonic plague.
As I said, I wanted to like The Car. I wanted this to be the AM album that made me go, ‘Oh, I see. At last, I get it.’ I craved a break in the clouds. I wanted to join the collective and become a late adopter. I tried, I really did. And I was bored. Sorry. Some people might deem the lyrics, ‘Lego Napoleon movie/ Written in noble gas-filled glass tubes’ nothing short of genius. If you ask me, it’s the words of someone with too much creative freedom and a fever dream journal.
The Arctic Monkeys are one of those bands that, for their acclaimed early stuff or their dynamic, ever-changing sound, will never fail to steal headlines. They could write a two-hour, reggae-inspired concept album about the Ottoman Empire and Rolling Stone would wait with bated breath for the first single. They’re a victim of their own success and, props to them, people seem to love this new, experimental direction for the band. God knows there’s nothing more boring than a group who put out the same album, year after year.
But when there is no shortage of great, up-and-coming groups, underground talent and alternative acts, the fact the Monkeys get quite so much love for an album like The Car is beyond me. And, quite possibly, the finest real-world example of the emperor’s new clothes tale yet.