Let me start by telling you a story:
An unsigned band from Sheffield, with the help of a burgeoning fanbase and a hell of a lot of hype (in other words The InterNet), manage to get their first single to No.1 in the UK charts, an unprecendented feat. Their debut album sells millions. The Arctic Monkeys become, for about a year, superstars, national heroes, the equals (and heirs apparent) of Oasis, the Smiths and the Libertines. Meanwhile, America bats an eyelid or 200, but doesn’t really see the fuss.
Fair enough, America; in this case, I’m not arguing. Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was an enjoyable album which basically had two tricks: a series of repetitive, stop-start, mordant, catchy riffs, and the novelty of Alex Turner’s Northern dialect (for maybe 3 months, everyone in Britain became self-proclaimed experts in the South Yorkshire drawl, because they knew how to say “Raight ‘ard” instead of “terribly difficult”).
Of course, everyone knows what happened next: a destructive orgy of a world tour, Turner violently arguing with his bandmates, his coke addictio- oh, sorry, hang on. In fact, Favourite Worst Nightmare, while lacking in radio-friendly singles, was a much stronger, more varied album, and the band’s headline set at Glastonbury in 2007 was flawless, a triumph against the backlash.
And yet, the British public are a fickle lot. The surprising thing is that the band are still commercially successful, their latest effort outselling the rest of the UK Album Chart Top 10 put together, but I get the feeling that some will be disappointed, because this is by no means an instant album. A quick glance at Metacritic reveals an awful lot of 7/10 marks.
Here is the cover of this latest album, with the glorious title of Humbug:
I say ‘glorious’ for two reasons: 1) it’s a wonderful understatement (see also: starting your ‘comeback’ album with a thinly veiled lyric about impotence (‘My Propeller’)), and 2) it captures the mood of the record perfectly: the Arctic Monkeys have never been a band that covet success, and on Humbug, they treat it like dirt off their eight shoulders. Leechers and A&R men were the specific target on Favourite Worst Nightmare – “Who’d want to be men of the people/When there’s people like you?” – but here, Turner even seems to take an oblique stab at his own fans in ‘Secret Door’ – “Fools on parade conduct a sing-a-long” – and the cryptic chorus of ‘Pretty Visitors’: “All the pretty visitors came and waved their arms/and cast the shadow of a snakepit on the wall”.
But mindless beery blokes requesting ‘Mardy Bum’ every three songs aren’t the only villians here: Humbug is a album of exasperation with himself as much as others. At times tormented by women (‘Crying Lightning’, or this great line from ‘Dangerous Animals’: “You should have racing stripes / the way you keep me in pursuit”); at times, despairing of them (‘Potion Approaching’), and occasionally, mocking his own obsession, (the Pulp-sounding ‘Cornerstone’). Nor are there any happy endings to sweeten the bitter pill: ‘Secret Door’ is the only song here that even scratches a major key, and ‘The Jeweller’s Hands’ brings the album to a desperately sad close, the redemption of the final lyrics circling, circling and finally drowning in Turner’s bandmates’ swirl and rumble.
If you heard this band 5 years ago and dismissed them, you should know that the Monkeys have become completely different beasts. Crudely speaking, it seems obvious that, somewhere between records no. 2 and 3, Arctic Monkeys’ collective balls dropped. And, ladies, I can assure you that if there’s one man you want around to guide you when your balls drop, that man is Josh Homme.
The production on Humbug is perfect, fitting the somber mood and weary but powerful drone. Yes, it sounds like a Queens of the Stone Age record – isn’t it a shame that that no longer sounds like a compliment? – but the songwriting here surpasses anything Homme ever came up with. The guitar lines here are as billowy as they are biting, Turner has stopped trying to fit every word he can think of into a lyric, and ‘Dance Little Liar’ should silence any critics complaining that the band cannot rock anymore.
Humbug mixes the best parts of 60s pop, QOTSA and Nick Cave’s work, and hits its peaks on the songs which best combine the three, ‘Crying Lightning’ and the stalking, stunning ‘Dance Little Liar’. To me, it’s a masterpiece; I recommend giving it at least three listens before writing it off.
Thanks for reading. Speak soon, maybe,
Thank so much Joe! See… this is what I love about this. I completely missed the Arctic Monkeys, and thanks to Joe I get to check them out, specifically Humbug. Here’s the tracklist with the 2 songs from above and a little link love for you. Keep an eye out for more guest writers soon!!!
1. “My Propeller”
2. “Crying Lightning”
3. “Dangerous Animals”
4. “Secret Door”
5. “Potion Approaching”
6. “Fire and the Thud”
8. “Dance Little Liar”
9. “Pretty Visitors”
10. “The Jeweller’s Hands”