“That rock ’n’ roll, eh? It just won’t go away. It might hibernate from time to time and sink back into the swamp…But it’s always waiting there, just around the corner. Ready to make its way back through the sludge and smash through the glass ceiling – looking better than ever.
Yeah, that rock ’n’ roll. It seems like it’s fading away sometimes, but it’ll never die – and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Invoice me for the microphone, if you need to”.
At which point, Alex Turner proceeds to emphatically drop that selfsame microphone. Point made.
All that happened at the Brit Awards 2014, when Turner and the Arctic Monkeys swaggered onstage to collect their trophy and give their victors’ speech for the big win, British Album of the Year, for their fifth album AM. In that moment, the scene was perfect: Self-congratulatory pith about the immortality of rock ’n’ roll from a man who had spearheaded the biggest – and best – rock-celebrating album by a band whose existence seemed premised on living and honouring a distinct strain of The Rock Ethos, doused in a slew of excellently distilled flavours.
In that particular category, the band had bested two fantastic electronic music groups (Rudimental and Disclosure), pop-rock contenders (Bastille) and a then-living rock gawd himself (David Bowie). So, it was a big win. Oh, and it rocks.
All that made Turner’s literal mic drop, though unnecessary, feel earned.
If you don’t look hard enough, those optics favour the band and Turner’s award-show bravado. But if you sift through the finer points, three things about that whole barely-three-minute saga stand out as odd:
- Why go through all that moral grandstanding about rock ’n’ roll when you’ve just defeated one of its most singular architects, David Bowie?
- With AM being the locus of comparison, Turner seemed to be positing its vision of rock as the undying, glass ceiling-smashing strain of ‘rock’ he was toasting to.
- After that speech, Turner and co. never released a front-to-back ‘rock’ album again.
Four years after that speech and five years after AM, the band would unveil Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, a concept album set on a luxury hotel on the Moon and enlivened by the POV of a slew of fictional characters. It was lushly cinematic, occasionally gorgeous, consciously ambitious and seemed straining to not be a ‘rock’ album. So much wit, irony, self-reflexive metacommentary, at the expense of the transcendental directness that comes from sweat, power chords and lyrics you can shout out under any circumstances to make life life-affirming. So much arrangement – strings, texture, swooning scale – but nothing to excite the blood in the way its predecessors did.
Some people liked it and some didn’t. The cavernous split in reception seemed like the point of it all. This was the tone-setter, the first sign of a fanatically beloved band pushing ashore from all that made them fanatically beloved. But consensus was unified on one point: The lads had grown up. Grown enough to embark on a course of self-correction that defined their latter-day incarnation as Statement Makers, more specifically, Statement Makers with “Big Ideas” – actual song title – that require orchestral reinforcement.
Now, four years after Tranquility, the band presents its seventh album The Car. Superficially – obviously – The Car is the first successor of Tranquility’s alienating show of growth. It doubles down so hard on the ethos that informed its predecessor that it – for all the right and less-right reasons – is the band’s most singularly uncompromising performance in its existence.
A lot happens in The Car’s 37 minutes – depending on whom you ask. If you’re here for immediacy and momentum, nothing does. But if you’re invested in the experience opening itself up to you and unraveling its many florid layers by degrees, petal after ornate petal slowly budding in the light of its textural sprawl, then, so much does.
A profound and frustrating magic haunts and charges each and all the 10 songs here with a surreal power. As a thorough and total lover of how the band straddled widescreen pomp with arena-resounding bite before – some close-to-heart performances being “Piledriver Waltz” and “I Wanna Be Yours” – it’s not just a little vexing to have the goalposts shifted to such a remove where widescreen pomp has replaced any sort of bite as the sole priority, now. The album, the full scale and sweep of it, is best and only enjoyable when you accept, as Turner has said in more than one interview, that the ‘old stuff’, the old ways are in the rearview of the band’s consciousness.
It’s not till this record landed that I had to wrestle with the possibility that I might not be one of those heaving-breasted fans standing at the pier, frenetically urging the band toward new creative territory. This reckoning hit me from the very outset. “There'd Better Be a Mirrorball”, which is legitimately beautiful, by every metric, is the opening song of the record and a potent emblem of the challenge the band now poses to its legions. Is it expertly realised?
Fantastically so. Is its lovelorn pall affecting in the way that makes your heart ache for Turner? Oh, yes. Does it hold its own, definingly, as a work of art? Of course. Does it pave the way to a holistically conceived world rich with detail and nuance and teeming with stories? Easily, consistently and undeniably.
But do I like it? Would I come back to these songs often enough to know their blueprints like the back of my hands? Would I ever have need to seek them out and bask in their secrets? Do I want to hear them live? Will they compose the outline of my consciousness the way everything up until Tranquility has? Will I fiercely defend them and spring into my battle stance when someone dares insinuate that “Black Treacle” isn’t one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll songs ever birthed? I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know.
What I do know is that the Arctic Monkeys have five albums of peerless, canons-enriching, torch-blazing rock. My greed for it will always be constant and avaricious. I also know that besides that five-piece, they have two albums of norm-breaking, limit-testing music that daringly testifies to the always-searching veneer of the expressive urge, that sets space aglow with its presence and intent. In sum, I know that with Turner and co., I really can have it all. Body and soul. Blood and muscle. The rock and the other kind of rock. I just have to remind myself that the two sides aren’t mutually exclusive, that, they’re actually mutually inclusive. All in all is all we are, right?
Of the many moments in The Car where Turner smoulders, there’s one that feels poignantly apt especially now:
“And if wе guess who I'm pretending to be / Do we win a prize? / Having attempted twice, both incorrectly / Do we get a third try?”
A double-edged sword cuts both ways. But a battle axe hacks everything to bits. The band responsible for The Car is the one that gave us Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. Sixteen years and five albums separates both milestones: But the same band made them both. They haven’t been the same band – but they are.
As I go through their catalog – which is one of the most resplendently stacked in contemporary pop and rock – I’m going to give The Car many more chances and plays. And if I don’t like it as much as the older stuff, it is what it is. No one is worse for it. Nothing is lost. Songs like “Balaclava” and songs like “There'd Better Be a Mirrorball” can and do coexist in the same artistic cosmos.
And, I know one more thing: I will always love this band. Always.
So, that rock ’n’ roll, eh? It just won’t go away. It might hibernate from time to time and sink back into the swamp…But it’s always waiting there, just around the corner.
Ready to make its way back through the sludge and smash through the glass ceiling – looking better than ever.