By Giliann Karon
Face it, Arctic Monkeys have gone soft. Their latest album, The Car, sounds more like Muzak than the seventh album of one of the most prolific garage rock bands. The exhilarating riffs, seductive storylines, and alluring aesthetics seem to be a thing of the past. We’ll never get the danceable hook of “Fluorescent Adolescent,” the brash call and response of “Fake Tales of San Francisco,” or the guitar break of “Arabella.”
Look, it’s not a bad album. In fact, these silky smooth ballads speak to the band’s expansive range. They’re no longer scrappy teens downing pints in grimy Sheffield pubs and leaving demos on bus seats. They’re adults with homes and families, so their music should reflect their growth. In fact, it’s probably better for the band to embrace maturity instead of reliving their glory days. Still, getting older doesn’t always mean losing your edge. If Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino took place in a futuristic space hotel, The Car exists within the final hours of a swanky lounge and the somber walk home.
With an elaborate orchestra in the background, their first single “There Better Be a Mirrorball” advises listeners that the Humbug and AM days are behind them. Unlike their previous work, The Car isn’t an album to blast through shared Airpods while stumbling through the streets en route to the next bar. It’s the soundtrack for the blurry Uber ride home.
Alex Turner’s lyricism is still sharp as ever, but he’s traded cheeky jabs, punctuated with regional slang, for rich storylines about alienating fame and the passage of time. “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am” masks Turner’s disaffection for shallow nightlife with a funky bassline, courtesy of Nick O’Malley.
A crisp wah-wah ushers in “Jet Skis on the Moat” where Turner elaborates on feelings of paranoia and isolation that appear omnipresent on the album. Most Arctic Monkeys albums criticize British culture and nightlife, but The Car turns inward to reckon with the dizzying highs and isolating lows inevitable for any band that creates such a legacy.
The band's first single “I Bet That You Look Good on the Dance Floor” channels earlier British rock music. In a black-and-white music video, Turner sings about casual sex, youthful frivolity, and British pub culture, which resonated with their young adult audience. 80’s British new wave contained muddled lyrics about heartbreak and loss bound by lush synths and distortions. Arctic Monkeys incorporated all these themes in their first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which sold 85,000 copies on its first day.
This era of Arctic Monkeys drew back the curtain on a hedonistic world overflowing with stiff drinks and anonymous flings cloaked in vintage leather and musky cologne, a world even more alluring because it existed so far out of reach. I compartmentalized the seductive lives of British rockers as fantasy, akin to Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty. I relied on Alex Turner’s stories to assure myself something greater existed beyond the sleepy suburbs. I’d see it one day.
Other listeners who came of age during AM’s meteoric rise now associate the band with a similar charm and nostalgia. At this point, Arctic Monkeys have cemented themselves so deeply into the millennial/Gen-Z cusp psyche. A subsection of their loyal fan base associates their music with personal discovery and first tastes of freedom, a security that allows them to dabble in sounds that don’t guarantee critical acclaim.
The lewd protagonists of their earlier songs are no longer searching for a woman to bring back at the end of the night. On “Body Paint,” the second single, Turner accepts his partner’s infidelity after she arrives home from a photo shoot. “For a master of deception and subterfuge/You’ve made yourself quite the bed to lie in,” he croons in a gentle falsetto. “I'm watching your every move/I feel the tears are coming on/It won't be long/it won't be long.” Earlier Arctic Monkeys songs served as social commentary on early aughts British culture and casual romance. The melancholic yet opulent “Body Paint” proves the grass is never greener, it’s just different.
Over a decade into their career, the band is faced with the choice to alter their sound to achieve commercial success or pass the torch to the next generation of British rock bands. Instead, they’re choosing themselves. Turner knows fans prefer raucous sounds, but has opted to dampen the clashing drums and channel isolation through somber lounge music. On “Sculptures of Anything Goes,” Turner spars with the fans who will inevitably say they’re not who they used to be: “Puncturing your bubble of relatability/With your horrible new sound.”
The smooth, refined songs on Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino chastised listeners for boxing the band into garage rock. Through boundless creativity, The Car cements the band’s new normal while testing their listeners’ loyalty.