Genre: Alternative Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Body Paint,” “Hello You”
Alex Turner is 36 years old. I had to look that up for context the first time I heard “There’d Better Be A Mirrorball,” the lead single from Arctic Monkeys’ terminally loungey seventh album, THE CAR. That track is probably the most anemic thing they’ve ever released (taking the crown even from anything on 2018’s spacey concept record, TRANQUILITY BASE HOTEL & CASINO). It’s quiet. It’s languid. The strings swing in, inexplicably treacly, swelling awfully high for a song in which nothing at all has really happened. Subtle is one thing, but flat-out bland is another, and when Turner croons, I can’t help but think: “He has no business sounding this washed.”
Front to back, THE CAR suffers from an utter lack of momentum or drive; Arctic Monkeys sound like they’re stopped off the road in need of a battery jump that never comes, and James Ford’s mix does the music no favors. Turner always sounds like he’s singing to an empty theater while everything else in the arrangement happens somewhere else, each part too remote to spark any dynamic motion from the others. Whenever something even potentially interesting shows up—wah guitars on “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am,” or bass synth on the dull, thudding “Sculptures of Anything Goes”—it just gets sucked down the same pit of sonic quicksand.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
On past outings, like their commercial peak AM, restraint proved to be one of the most potent tools in the band’s arsenal; songs on that record were rich with bubbling tension, liable to boil over at any time, like on the ripping “Arabella” solo. THE CAR, for its part, doesn’t find anything to build up to or hold back from. A promising chord change in the middle of “Body Paint” teases a coming lift, and then… nothing. (Okay, not nothing, but not nearly enough, either.) Maybe TRANQUILITY BASE had the same issue, but leaning on the moonage concept, you could at least read an engaging, aged-Bowie playacting into Turner’s lounge persona. Take that away, and there’s not much here to work with.
When it comes down to it, Arctic Monkeys just can’t help being a great guitar band. Every time they plug one in and play a rare solo—as on “Big Ideas”—it’s like they have to couch it in extra orchestral meandering to keep it from having too much impact. The really frustrating thing about THE CAR is that it’s not unpleasant, or even altogether unmemorable (the high, clean lead on “Body Paint” runs laps around my head like the one in Radiohead’s “No Surprises”). It’s that Arctic Monkeys tamp down their best impulses, and for no real payoff. You can’t expect them to still sound like the hell-raising teens of their debut, or even the swaggering fantasy greasers of AM, but did they have to trade all that in for such a clunker?