It’s hard to say that fans have waited a long time for a new Cars record. The simple fact is we’d all given up. Their reunion was filed under “hopeless pursuits” along with Talking Heads and Led Zeppelin. Some 24 years later, surprise, surprise! With the promise of an actual new Cars record on the horizon I didn’t know what to think. Devo’s comeback smash, Fresh, is a recent example of how good an act bouncing back from oblivion can be, but more often than not a band’s charm doesn’t survive the hiatus. Would Ric Ocasek and company be up to the task of delivering the same quality of hook-infused, synth-injected pop rock that made The Cars legends? I’m happy to say that the answer is: YES …kinda.
Move Like This is indistinguishably a Cars album. Not since their breakup in ’88 has anyone sounded remotely close. There’s an energy in these tracks that lifts up Ocasek’s songwriting with musical cohesion that his other supporting musicians never had. The music of The Cars is about fun, quirky sentimentality, and just a hint of darkness on the edge of the vivid colors they project. This album has all that. Since their reformation, the band has often mentioned playing together again feels like they didn’t miss a beat, and it shows.
However, there’s a key ingredient missing to this album: tracks with the same immediate universal appeal as their most lasting hits. It would be damning if the band manufactured another “Let the Good Times Roll”, but all of their albums had at least one track that the masses could latch onto. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong (and I hope so), but I don’t see one here. The first single, “Sad Song” is a close runner. In fact, my first listen the track made me nervous of the band trying too hard to recreate their own sound, hand claps and all. On additional listens, especially within the context of the album, “Sad Song” stands its ground as a great track – quintessentially The Cars but also something new and different. The production is very modern, perhaps the most densely produced track on the album- a clear assertion that The Cars’ style fits in very nicely with the 21st century. Musically, it’s a brilliant merger of past and present. Lyrically, it doesn’t send the same singalong signals that are so prevalent in past hits.
The album’s lack of obvious hits is a fact that can’t be discounted, but it feels wrong to dock Move Like This for not being a hitmaker when so much of the album works. On first listen I was overwhelmed by how completely this is a Cars record, populated by tried and true Cars songs. It might not be swinging with “Just What I Needed” or “It’s All I Can Do”, but hanging with the likes of “Dangerous Type” or “Why Can’t I Have You” ain’t too shabby. “Blue Tip”, the album’s second single, has all the punch of a sure-fire hit, but shrugs off mainstream appeal with a heavy dose of Ocasek’s dadaist lyrics. It might not be made to sing along to, but it’s definitely made to rock to. This is a key factor of the album: You may come in with expectations that may not be met, but you will leave having fully enjoyed yourself.
After weeks of listening, two tracks asserted themselves as unlikely standouts: “Free” and “Too Late”. These are the tracks I start singing out of the blue. “Free” is a rhythmic track with harsh synths and a mantra-like chorus about time travel. The chorus’ heavy guitars and later, an unmistakably Cars keyboard solo are deeply satisfying. “Too Late” is a track in the vein of “It’s All I Can Do”- a bittersweet breakup song with beautiful harmonies and a beat to keep it lively. The track’s distinct appeal comes from the fullness of its layered production. After multiple listens it becomes clear that the songs click with the same infinitely replayable, simple joy of classic Cars.
“Keep On Knocking” breaks new ground for The Cars with some hitherto unseen hard rock influences: heavy power chords and a mystically metal guitar solo. The song’s themes of partying and manipulation of the masses work well with the musical backdrop. “Drag On Forever” features some of Ocasek’s most delightfully surreal lyrics (“Your waxy face is melting on your lap/And I sat there trying to crush a ginger snap.” With older artists it’s inevitable there there will be a song about “these changin’ times,” and though it tackles an obvious topic, “Hits Me” is great. The track has a suitably neurotic pace and even features a (hopefully) intentionally senile “decompose/painted rose” rhyme used in Ocasek’s previous album, Nexterday. Paired with all this energy are two sentimental ballads: “Soon” and “Take Another Look”. The tracks fit in beautifully with Ocasek’s legacy of charming, heartfelt slow jams. “Soon” consciously dons shades of Roy Orbison with great effect, whereas “Take Another Look” could easily belong to Ocasek’s outstanding Cars-era solo album Keep On Laughing.
In The Cars’ absence, the musical landscape has changed, but their relevance hasn’t waned. For the overall balance of the album, a few more hit-ready tracks would’ve served Move Like This well. But if they’re not gunning for the Top 40, then maybe having a hit-ready single doesn’t matter. They’re back from the grave, and they’ve brought with them tracks that fans young and old can get behind. The Cars have picked up right where they left off – not recycling their material but continuing their sonic legacy. Based on a recent interview with drummer David Robinson, Move Like This isn’t the last we’ve seen of The Cars and that’s a very good thing – because this album gets you revved up and ready for more.
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard.