On The Car, Arctic Monkeys are still whatever they say they are.
‘Hurrah, Arctic Monkeys are back!’
‘This is rubbish, I want the previous version of Arctic Monkeys back.’
…has basically been the commentary of certain fans upon every release by the group, barring second album Favourite Worst Nightmare, which bore enough resemblance to their seminal debut to pass their muster.
Better still, there are now two generations of fans (those that were enthralled by Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and the newer breed who jumped aboard for AM) who can rage together.
The clue was in the first album title, people.
Fortunately, Alex Turner and his friends don’t care, never have and nor should they; they are artists, and art by democracy isn’t a viable concept.
Yet there was some allowance made for the sci-fi lounge jazz of previous album Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino in the hope that it was a one-off and they’d soon come back to the rollicking R&B riffs of AM. Not a bit of it.
While they haven’t exactly doubled down (The Car is, if nothing else, more accessible than its predecessor), they’ve moved on yet again.
Largely (though not entirely) gone are the eerie, seemingly discordant synths and piano, in come the strings. While lesser acts often add strings to try and corner the listener into Feeling Some Emotions, Turner et al are cleverer and classier than that. Rather than complement the songs, the luscious orchestration drives them.
For its first two minutes or so There’d Better Be A Mirrorball is a song to bathe in and get lost inside, then the strings enter and it evolves into a tear-jerker.
I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am opens as a slice of vintage plastic soul until they fully take over in the mid-section, while they drive the jaunty Hello You with a similar structure to John Coltrane’s Love Supreme.
As ever, Arctic Monkeys aren’t content to simply include something to embellish the song; it must be an intrinsic part of it and, along with arranger Bridget Samuels and long-time producer James Ford, they have hit upon a fresh method of using them.
Not that The Car is one-dimensional, the opposite in fact. Seemingly over his guitarist’s block, Turner and Jamie Cook (along with ‘additional Monkey’ Tom Rowley) prove their under-rated proficiency across the album, although it takes a while for them to warm up.
While they swoon on Jet Skies On The Moat, it’s not until fifth track Body Paint where they unleash for the fuzzy, galvanizing outro and go swooping, almost Arabian on the title-track.
Alex Turner’s progression as a lyricist has been remarkable, but he has seemingly taken to heart a new method: less is more. Where Tranquility Base… was perhaps overstuffed with oblique and seemingly unrelated lines, on The Car he streamlines his approach without losing the vivid imagery.
Is it autobiographical? With lines such as, ‘keeping on my costume and calling it a writing tool’, or, ‘I had big ideas, the band were so excited’, it’s hard not to make that correlation, but Turner is too clever and guarded to be so open, always playing four-dimensional chess with his audience.
Although, given their current rival to take the number 1 slot in the album chart this weekend, perhaps, ‘keep reminding me that it ain’t a race when my invincible streak turns onto the final straight’, is a little too portentous, even for him.
Vocally he’s constantly improving too, his oft-used aching falsetto here a long cry from the machine-gun delivery of 2005, while the best drummer of his generation, Matt Helders, gets his teeth into the likes of Body Paint and album closer Perfect Sense while being the steady if unspectacular foundation elsewhere.
Ambitious, full of textures, innovation and pure musicianship, The Car takes us all on a riveting journey. Still the best band in the world, then.