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A seasoned brew of bittersweetness in Arctic Monkeys’ ‘The Car’

The most popular drinks across regions and time share a common feature: they are all astringent. That is, may it be tea, coffee or beer, they are not the most palate-pleasing beverages at first taste. They are either bitter or acidic with an unsmooth aftertaste on the tongue. It is precisely due to their lingering smoothness why people find those drinks all the more flavorful and intriguing the more they consume. 

The appeal of the Arctic Monkeys’ latest album “The Car,” released Oct. 21, works in a similar fashion. Purposefully written cryptically and paired with original assembling of melody, it is difficult to pinpoint what feeling the album induces or why it is captivating at first listen. Yet it invites listeners to a second, third and further replays to appreciate its magic. As one fan commented below the music video for “There’d Better Be A Mirrorball,” “They [Arctic Monkeys] are like a fine wine.” Indeed, this album itself is also like wine, refining in aroma and texture as the number of replays stack up, and the length of listening time stretches out. 

After 20 years of making music, the Arctic Monkeys are no longer writing angsty ballads that are bursting with desire, desperation, uneasiness or smirk. They showed on this and their 2018 album “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino,” that they are starting to look back on their musical journey and nod to the past with fond, vulnerable nostalgia.

“[‘The Car’] has its DNA from “AM”,” said interviewer Jack Saunders from BBC Radio. The melody of “No.1 Party Anthem” arguably fits in most with the theme of “The Car” out of all the songs in the band’s 2013 album “AM.” But whereas “No.1 Party Anthem” is a call to action in the middle of a party, the songs in this latest album seem to be more fitting for the end of a late party, during or after the drive home.

The lead single of the album, “There’d Better Be A Mirror Ball,” evokes that feeling of returning home after a long trip. Many emotions and threads of thought are tangled together — relief, release, inexplicable melancholy and sentimentality. The starting notes in a minor key and repeated choruses later hint at a sense of inevitable fate. The song could fit perfectly into a scene in which one parts ways forever with an old friend or lover under the rose-gold sunset, as another fan commented under the music video of this song.

“Somehow giving it the old romantic fool/Seems to better suit the mood/So if you wanna walk me to the car/You oughta know I'll have a heavy heart.” As if the melody isn’t enough to highlight the mental burden, the lyrics double down on this pain from old scars. The mirrorball is at the center of the song’s message. Perhaps it symbolizes the “good ‘ol days,” a piece of memorabilia that offers an excuse to escape from the banality of life and to lose oneself in rhythms and blinking lights.

In “Body Paint,” the second lead single of the album, repeated mentions of “a trace of body paint,”  calls to mind a late night, post-gathering atmosphere. The night is winding down, but not everyone has left yet. Brief pauses and subsequent restarts in the song are as if one is taking brief respites after profound weariness, and then quickly resuming motion. In the middle of the song, there are short tidbits of more cheerful tunes, hovering over the main notes. However, these are just like the creamy foams in a cup of coffee that makes bitter into bittersweet. In other words, those tunes tame but don’t qualitatively change the rueful undertone.

Though at its core, this album is related to nostalgia and grayish emotions, the songs don’t uniformly represent this theme in a dejected way. Strong funk influence can be heard in “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am.” As a second song in the album, it deviates from the slower tempo of the first one. Imagery in this song is vivid and absurdly imaginative, psychedelic even. “Formation displays of affection fly over/(Eyes roll back) and I can see both islands now,” and “Looks like the Riviera/Is coming into land” both are prime examples of arresting but confusing imagery. This is one of the few upbeat songs in the album. Its strong percussion beats are almost trying to get this message across: “I ain’t quite where I think I am, but who cares anyway. Let’s just disco dance to this makeshift fun, because ‘it’s always worth half a blast.’”

Dramatic tensions throughout the album are well-executed. All songs fit into a cohesive story, but they are a kaleidoscope showing multiple versions of that overarching story of hopeless nostalgia and unnamed sadness.

The theatricality of the album is uplifted by orchestral sounds, marks of glam rock and lead singer Alex Turner’s falsetto. The namesake song of the album is a modern reenactment of “Waiting for Godot.” It pairs anticipatory notes with lyrics that conjure up the most commonplace items and places in modern life, such as “car”  and “dusty apartment.” Both the“I” in the song and the listener are left hanging with an underwhelming endnote. 

I am probably not the only listener whose first reaction to wildly riddlelike lyrics in this album is: “What is Alex Turner even talking about? Who even is the man in ‘Mr. Schwartz’ with the lint-covered velveteen suit?” But like Turner said in an interview with BBC Radio, the lyrics are not necessarily meant to be taken literally. “It’s just how it makes you feel, isn’t it?” said Turner in the interview.

A sense of seasoned and controlled expression of sorrow and disillusionment permeates the entire 37-minute record. It is so exquisite that it completes the bittersweetness, making the album worthy of repeated savoring, like the finest cup of coffee.

Katherine Zhong | Local Arts Editor

Katherine Zhong is a Trinity junior and local arts editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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