The Car (Domino)
AT THE FIRST PEAK OF THE CAREER of Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys in 2008, singer and songwriter, Alex Turner, took what seemed like the most unlikely alternative route from the band’s energised “new wave of guitar rock” fare that had already made for two number one albums. It was his first warning shot, the first indication that we might end up here, with The Car.
Releasing an album under the name The Last Shadow Puppets with newish bosom buddy Miles Kane, packed with songs which recalled the orchestrated pomp and particular circumstance of late ‘60s and early ‘70s dramatic pop music, Turner was prone to name-dropping inspirations like Scott Walker and John Barry. As enthusiastic as they were, and as entertaining as it was, both of them had really just dipped their toes into the catalogue and their attentions would soon be caught elsewhere. But Turner’s appetite for deviation was whet.
By the time 2018’s Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino took the Monkeys literally and figuratively into space rock and lunar cabaret (or weird shit and grandpa pop as its detractors might have it), positing them as the band you might find playing at Douglas Adams’ restaurant at the end of the universe, they had experimented with the addition of desert jams, glam, more string arrangements and zip-fresh powered pop; shifted from inward-facing performers to solid backers of a now flamboyant front man; and Turner’s lyrics had long abandoned the pointillist observations of everyday life for something equally wordy but more opaque, often funny but with more ambiguous targets.
At the same time, even though they were consistently strong selling albums, it did feel as if for the long-time US-based Turner there was no certainty interest would be retained in the band form, or at least this band, while some thought the ultimate perverse reversal might see him making a snappy bit of guitar pop next time. Just to put a middle finger up. Or, you know, please those who had been pining for the olden times.
Everyone was wrong. Again.
Rather than step away from the band, Turner reconvened drummer Matt Helders, bass player Nick O’Malley and guitarist Jamie Cook. Instead of backing away from the lunar cabaret, The Car goes even further into its strings-and-drama possibilities, offering in addition Curtis Mayfield wah-wah guitar and higher range, and some Denmark Street delicacy and theatrics.
And where there could be street patter and sharply defined commentary, Turner retains his interest in portraying detailed yet semi-obscured characters, often sardonically, occasionally sympathetically, observed in their dances around lies they tell themselves and others, impressions they try to make, and motivations which seem elusive to us.
The verdict? A (slightly qualified) winner: the songs and sound rich and fascinating; the lyrics an intellectual adventure, whose flaws are in their not always graspable emotion. But then I thought Tranquillity Base… a fascinating exercise, still play that first Shadow Puppets, and I can get my jumpy pop/rock elsewhere, so I may not be everyone’s most reliable adviser.
For me, There’d Better Be A Mirrorball, sets the standard immediately. Turner, in the guise of an all too aware, so well attired, suitor whose surface is creamily smooth but whose centre is hollow, is set against a background of a low-key evening band slowly being absorbed into a Lee Hazlewood arrangement of sweetness with a hint of menace that keeps hinting it may turn.
There’s something of that in Jet Skis On The Moot – which is more soul balladry bent around a country flame – the suggestion here being sultriness, but there is a slight queasiness through it all that keeps back desire. And even more of it in Body Paint, though here the song progresses from early ‘60s Bobby Darin to late ‘60s Paul McCartney to mid-‘70s David Bowie in just under five minutes.
For the strongest suggestion of emotional sincerity, musically at least, we have to turn to Big Ideas where Gordon Jenkins-style strings (graceful and touching on poignant) cede the ground eventually to a confident guitar you could imagine a Waddy Wachtel laying down.
While we’re in that timezone, the wide collars and fat heels of I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am shine in its mix of Philadelphia strings, Chicago guitar and New York stride. If Turner once wore an Elvis quiff and leather jacket with greasy pride, the preferred style now would appear to be long and loose and worn over denim and satin. And it works.
But does it really you ask? Here’s where some listeners will have left the record already, finding the close to the microphone, not-quite-crooner-not-exactly-not, singing bordering on the false. Or at least the mannered and ironic.
Allied with lyrics which comment and dissect even when delivered in the first person, which hold at some distance even when affecting the intimate, Turner’s smooth vocals are not exactly a barrier – he sounds positively creamy and right there – but they could become an obstacle.
Get past that though and you likely will succumb to this moon-side cabaret.
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