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