In 2018, still riding high on the critical and commercial adoration of their wildly successful fifth album AM, the Arctic Monkeys made the bold but common move that often accompanies rock stars thrust into the limelight—following up their breakthrough release with an album guaranteed to split and alienate vast swathes of their newfound fanbase. While historically this has been an exercise in abrasion and subversion (as with darker-and-edgier classics In Utero or OK Computer), the Arctic Monkeys instead opted for exactly the opposite approach. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, while certainly experimental and somewhat inaccessible, was the smoothest, gentlest, glitziest collection of songs the band had ever released. It was also the most tedious. The Car, however, is a welcome improvement.
The comparisons between the two records really are readily apparent—like Tranquility Base, The Car is an assortment of slow, piano driven ballads that abandon the band’s indie rock foundations, and Alex Turner’s cadence of choice remains a soft, warbling, croon. This time, though, the dry, witty lyricism actually blends together nicely with compelling instrumentation from a band who have been given the opportunity to flesh out some distinctive character from song to song. It isn’t perfect—the record doesn’t offer much variation—but there’s enough going on here to keep things feeling generally interesting without becoming a slog. “Jet Skis On The Moat,” for example, is a cool, casual, relaxed tune whose warm, sultry bassline and politely cutting hook (“Are you just happy to sit there and watch while the paint job dries?”) is a pleasing and surprising contrast to the song that precedes it, “Sculptures of Anything Goes,” a dark, sinister track characterized by a rolling, synth-driven drone whose static reverberations create the feeling of a large, shadowy space, echoing and empty.
This similarity to Tranquility Base is surely intentional and relatively brave. Considering how rare it has been across the band’s seven-album career for them to stick so closely to one particular style from one record to the next, the choice to do so now likely signals an intention to stay in their current groove for the foreseeable future—or at least to continue to eschew the more accessible pop and rock tunes that facilitated their meteoric rise in the first place.
What this means for the future of the band’s listeners is anyone’s guess, and Alex Turner himself is successful enough not to have to listen to anyone. But what it means for The Car, though, is that, for better or worse, it’s intrinsically linked with its predecessor; if you thought Tranquility Base was a masterpiece, you’ll quite like it, and if you thought Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not is the apotheosis of the band’s oeuvre, then this isn’t going to change your mind. And if you’re teetering somewhere in the middle, wondering which side to embrace? Well, the smart money is on this one. Because, if nothing else, The Car is a clear sign that the version of Turner and company who made upbeat rock music about shit nights out in Sheffield is decisively a thing of the past.
Which is too bad, but only because it means the Arctic Monkeys have committed to shedding their old skin before they’ve managed to form a new one. The Car’s overwhelming issue is that none of its songs—even at their best—succeed in being more interesting than the new persona that Turner seems to have carved out for himself and the band, starting on Tranquility Base and continuing on from there. The delicate glamor of the vocal delivery, the stylish meandering of the bass and the steady warmth of the piano calls to mind the romantic image of well-dressed musicians playing to a tipsy audience in a smoky lounge bar, with Turner heading the outfit as a kind of sardonic Ziggy Stardust or a more flowery Tom Waits. It has promise, and the ingredients are pretty much all there. The only thing missing is some standout songs.