Arctic Monkeys on How New Album Weds Their Historic and Current Sounds


For Arctic Monkeys, recording the album is just the beginning. The next step is its own undertaking, a daunting one for a band with an increasingly eclectic catalogue: finding a way to make the new songs coexist with the old. Arctic Monkeys are one of the few authentically huge rock bands in an era where the genre’s cultural dominance has continued to wane; even rarer, they are one of the few authentically huge bands to refuse to make the same album twice.

Alex Turner, the band’s frontman, says that the Monkeys are encouraged by early reactions to the new material. “One thing that seems to happen on every record is that it’s not until you start playing these things in front of a bunch of people that they reveal what they really are,” Turner says over a Zoom call. “These new ones… they don’t just fit anywhere, but it feels like we can find a way through a set.”

The band’s live shows are progressively incorporating more from “The Car,” the band’s seventh album. “The Car” shares clear connective tissue with 2018’s “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino,” a loungey, high-concept space opera that politely disregarded any expectations for a replica of 2013’s “AM,” the massive commercial behemoth that elevated the band’s success to a new echelon. But though the “Tranquility” echoes register immediately, “The Car” is its own statement: less beholden to a conceptual throughline; more pervasively melancholy in disposition; more abstract and less hooky; more insular in its concerns where “Tranquility” looked outward.

Turner agrees that the album isn’t easy to crystallize into a digestible elevator pitch. While some see a clear break between “AM’s” straightforward, visceral rock and the thornier, brainier “Tranquility Base,” Turner believes both sides coexist comfortably on “The Car.” “I think there is still a bit of the ‘R U Mine?’ band on this record. There is that component, it just brings itself in and out of focus in a more dynamic way and a more extreme way,” he explains. “It completely disappears in some areas. But it sort of bubbles up from under the surface on occasion throughout the 40 minutes.”

Turner traces the record’s liveliest passages to studio sessions in the English countryside, which reunited the band after the pandemic forced a prolonged hiatus: Turner, Matt Helders (drummer), Nick O’Malley (bass), Jamie Cook (guitar and keyboards) and longtime producer James Ford. “Perhaps prior to the [session] in the countryside last summer, I expected there would be less of that guitar sound bubbling up, actually,” Turner says. “But something about us all getting back together again brought out a bit more of that than I had expected.”

That brotherly rapport is a key factor of the group’s perseverance over the course of twenty years, weathering many divergent phases and a rapidly evolving music industry. Turner recalls the band’s third album, 2009’s serrated desert rock opus “Humbug,” as an inflection point that supercharged the band with renewed purpose. “That’s the point at which the possibilities start to present themselves to us creatively. Before that one… we were almost running out of steam and didn’t know where to go,” he says. “But that experience and where it was and who we were working with at that time, it all played a part in us opening up and just being less careful about it, I suppose… We became less precious about moving in different directions.”

Arctic Monkeys (Photo: Zachery Michael)

The band is constantly seeking a similar spark – ideas that challenge what an Arctic Monkeys song should sound like. “The Car” is full of such unexpected discursions. One of the album’s most thrilling moments comes midway through when, as Turner describes it, “the band disappear in the middle and do a costume change” during “Body Paint.” “It almost feels like there’s three separate acts…you’ve got the front third, and there’s a moment in the middle where the band totally disappear, and they come back on the last bit in a different outfit to the one they were wearing for the first two verses.”

Other songs are similarly unpredictable, such as “There’d Better Be a Mirrorball,” the swooning widescreen waltz that Turner says shaped the rest of the album: “The instrumental section at the beginning had the feeling of something I wanted the whole record to be able to coexist with and influence everything else around it.” Turner says that while it isn’t always easy to trace the lineage of his work, “Mirrorball” is a clear descendant of Nat King Cole’s “Where Did Everyone Go?”, a song adorned with the sort of elegant, cinematic strings that punctuate key moments on “The Car.”

Turner remains one of the great modern lyricists, delivering turns of phrase that are eye-popping in their specificity and wit: “Blank expressions invite me to suspect I ain’t quite where I think I am,” he says on the paranoid “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am,” later continuing: “The spare set of tingles’ll race up your spine if I get it my way”. On the minimalistic march of “Sculptures of Anything Goes”: “Puncturing your bubble of relatability with your horrible new sound…Baby, those mixed messages ain’t what they used to be when you said ‘em out loud.” While Turner’s reputation as a lyricist is well-established, he still catches himself second guessing his work: “I’ve never managed to get to a place where you’re completely content with it, or if you are remotely in that place, it seems like it never lasts very long, and the moment it comes out you wish you’d had further deliberation.”

And though Turner would eventually like to explore opportunities outside of Arctic Monkeys on an unspecified timeline (“Certainly not tonight, probably”), he feels adamant that his success is due to the band’s easy camaraderie and creative alignment. “There’s a part of the process that is the discovery of where you want it to go. More often than not, amongst the four of us, usually we’re approximately on the same page, fortunately.”

In 2022, an Arctic Monkeys show is a remarkable distillation of the band’s different iterations: the invincible youthful bluster of “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”; the sparkling love-drunk Britpop of “Suck It and See”; now, the grand orchestral composure of “The Car.” Turner says he would be hard-pressed to bridge such disparate phases without the band’s unique alchemy. “I think if I was up there on my own trying to do it, I’d struggle with it and just have to pluck it out of thin air,” he says. “There’s a song called “[From the] Ritz to the Rubble” that I start off on my own, and when I start it now, I always start it an octave lower than it is supposed to be. And it’s not till the band come in on the eighth bar or whatever it is that I’m able to ramp it up and find something on the outskirts of that character. I wouldn’t want to try and do it on my own.”

Source : Variety