Arctic Monkeys: Humbug

Humbug is a dark, ambitious album that sounds as comfortable in the coffee lounge as in the mosh pit.

Arctic Monkeys


Label: Domino
US release date: 2009-08-25
UK release date: 2009-08-24
Label Website
Artist Website

It’s hard to believe that the Arctic Monkeys are less than a decade old... or that their first album came out just over three years ago... or that this is only the third album for one of the biggest names in new music. But then again, a lot of things about the Arctic Monkeys seem hard to believe. And so, not too long ago, the critics assumed that songwriter Alex Turner was cribbing lines from someone else, because this teenage upstart from Sheffield surely couldn’t be one of the greatest lyricists of his generation.

But Turner was always smarter than we gave him credit for. Just when the Arctic Monkeys seemed stale, he and Rascals singer Miles Kane started the Last Shadow Puppets, a late '60s pastiche that let Turner work on his ballads. And his time with Kane was clearly well spent, because Humbug is a dark, ambitious album that sounds as comfortable in the coffee lounge as in the mosh pit.

From the first note, Turner is almost unrecognizable. Who is this husky-voiced crooner, and where is the Sheffield twerp whose thick accent and pointed lyrics made him an NME hero overnight? Instead the opener “My Propeller” sounds like latter-day Pulp parody -- not that it isn’t brilliant. The truth is that Turner’s still here, just different. Maybe the problem is that once you’ve released the fastest-selling British debut of all time, it’s hard to deliver sordid tales of life on the streets. Not to mention Turner’s move to Brooklyn, following girlfriend Alexa Chung on her bid for MTV stardom. But if you stop expecting a scummy man looking for a certain romance, you might be pleasantly impressed.

Upon further listening, it’s no surprise that this album was produced by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme: the band’s once-narrow riffs and angular melodies have been so beefed up they might as well be on steroids. “Dangerous Animals” in particular has a stomp that Homme would be proud of. It’s a thoroughly American album, eschewing the Oasis-meets-Paul Weller sound of their earlier work for something heavier, something more primal. It’s the sound of the after-party, what happens when a teenage boy gets everything he asks for, and still wants to make album number three.

In many ways Humbug is a stronger album than previous efforts, particularly Favourite Worst Nightmare, if a less immediate one. Fans looking for chart-storming numbers like “I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor” will, admittedly, be let down. But the dark melody of “Secret Door", or the aggressive edge of “Potion Approaching” improves with every listen. Elsewhere the moody, menacing “Crying Lightning” has a John Lennon-gone-bad vibe, and though it might be a strange choice for a lead single, it’s not a bad one. Really, the only gesture towards the Whatever You Say sound is “Pretty Visitors", offering you the nonsense choice between “the chicken or the dickhead". It’s all in good fun, but feels out of place on an album that otherwise sticks to a newer, more mature vibe.

If anything, Humbug is reminiscent of Tonight, the latest Franz Ferdinand endeavor, in sound as well as in spirit. “Dangerous Animals” could be a “No You Girls” b-side, and the mellow “Dance Little Liar” sounds like a pumped-up version of “Katherine Kiss Me". But then again, those two bands are in equally precarious positions. Franz rode the post-punk revival wave to new heights and overnight success, only to discover that success wasn’t really for them. The Arctic Monkeys emerged not long after, aiming to bring a little swagger back to the scene. And if most of their contemporaries of 2005 (Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, Maxïmo Park) have proved disappointing, the Monkeys have always challenged themselves. Both Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys struggled with a second album that felt like more of the same, only to deliver a richer, more complex effort for number three. But, like Alex Kapranos and company, the Arctic Monkeys seem resigned to the fact that they’ll never be as big as they once were, that cold January of 2006, when the whole world was theirs.

But who says bigger is always better, anyway? Turner has already showed, in his time with the Last Shadow Puppets, that he’s perfectly content to experiment with the formula, rather than pursue the quick route to success. So now that the hype has settled, the immense pressure (and maybe the immense promise) somewhat deflated, the band is allowed to experiment. And Humbug is what they’ve come up with.

The problem, though, is consistency: this solid set of post-punk numbers begins to feel slightly tired halfway through. So the gorgeous balladry of “Cornerstone” feels like pure brilliance, yes. But even if that track is a rousing success, “Fire and the Thud” is just listless, aimless, any kind of “less” you can think of. It’s even, the ultimate pop sin, pretty boring. And the less said about the album’s closer, the dense, tedious “The Jeweller’s Hands", the better.

Sure, these are small quibbles with an almost uniformly excellent album. But at heart, Humbug fails to make that same connection the band once did, where musician and fan were one and the same. It just sounds too polished, too mature -- too good. It won’t be the massive success that Whatever You Say was just a few short years ago. It certainly won’t put anyone on the dancefloor. Then again, maybe that’s the price they need to pay to be taken seriously -- maybe in five years they’ll be laughing at all of us for doubting them, even for a second. It might not be what you were hoping for, but Humbug is a pretty good consolation prize.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.