Arctic Monkeys have been around for 20 years! When they were brought to our attention in 2005 – by the internet, a new way of spreading music – there were no iPhones, and Facebook was still just for students. I struggle to believe that original fans of Britain’s last indie band feel a thrill when they hear Alex Turner’s light orchestra taking centre stage again on “There’d Better Be A Mirrorball”, the first single from their new album, The Car. I can’t really believe they have Mantovani records – or other classics of the lounge and the library – filed alongside his. But we don’t desert bands these days when they stop making pop songs – there are too few bands to give up on. Turner is in a unique position in that whatever he does will forever be seen as evidence of his increasing sophistication, even if there are few tunes to hum, even if the words don’t make you laugh as they used to. Yet while he may have moved away from pop music he’s certainly not avant-garde. This new stuff isn’t his Tin Machine phase – it might, at a push, be his Young Americans (the soul, the strings), but still, without the mega-single.
Since 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, a space-inspired concept album, Turner’s lyrics have been less boom-tish couplet and more inward-looking. He had moved to LA and started composing alone at the piano. On new album The Car his long, curious musical phrases, reaching into savoury, non-poppy places, also suggest someone following the movement of their fingers on the keyboard, tracing out a thought: this is a writing process that no one else can get in on, occurring between man and piano alone. Now, he not only writes his songs but demos, tweaks, records, and adds drums and keyboards to them by himself before taking the finished product to his band. Sometimes, he recently said, the songs are met with excitement and sometimes with “palpable indifference”. Turner’s new solipsism was closely entwined with the theme of Tranquility Base Hotel, which played with the image of the lonely rock star adrift in LA. On The Car, it sounds less focused and more like a man who doesn’t need his band any more.
I like abstruse music, and I never usually look for deep meaning in lyrics, so I’m not sure what it is about the recent Arctic Monkeys sound that bothers me. Turner’s songs have a rich, sumptuous presentation of apparent grandeur and meaning, but I’m always searching for substance. The luxurious delivery – the velvety drama of it all – would appear to invite you in, but the voice immediately recedes again, curling up in a moment of wit. It’s not exciting, it’s tiring: Turner’s work makes me tired! I think I’m harsher on his lyrics than I would be with an inferior lyricist, because of the way they dance on your face, begging to be decoded, for you to find in some cases that there’s nothing to decode. I’m getting fed up of the strange, arresting image followed by the prosaic pay-off: “This electric warrior’s motorcade shall burn no more rubber down this boulevard / read the message I left on my thank-you card…” (“Hello You”). The velvet voice will never sound truly sincere.
The imagery of film-making and directing is everywhere on The Car. Big Ideas: “Can you co-direct and play the twins?” (boom-tish) “And adapt the main theme for mandolin?” Turner used to tell stories. Now he works in fragments, still images from technicolour movies, a notebook crammed with great opening scenes: “Straight from the cover shoot, there’s still a trace of body paint on your legs and on your arms and on your face…” (“Body Paint”). The enigmatically named “Mr Schwartz” could, he recently said, have been inspired by a George Saunders short story he read with the name “Schwartz” in the title, but it was also a name he saw under the tail-light on the back of an Alfa Romeo – so he doesn’t really know. Elsewhere, there are phrases chewed over for the sake of a pun, and compressed little vowel clusters to remind you that Turner, who now divides his time between Paris and London, is still the George Formby of High Green (“smudgin’ dubbin on your dancing shoes”).
What do I like about The Car? The musical experimentation can be powerful – the simple, Michael Nyman-ish riff in “There’d Better Be A Mirrorball” is modal and haunting. And “Sculptures of Anything Goes” is a wonderful song. Its volcanic drumbeats, with their crunchy collateral echo, borrow from Ultravox, while the singing reminds me of Holly Johnson in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Christmas tune “The Power of Love”. Eerie, full-chested, full of conviction and almost emotional, Turner sings again and again of “blank canvases leant against gallery walls”. In that song, he takes his interest in unfinished things – his fragments and broken images – and turns it into a portrait of loss.
[See also: Are the 1975 geniuses, or simply mediocre?]