Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Label: Domino/Warner Bros./EMI
Due Out: August 25th
Like many other bands reaching for the third album milestone, the Arctic Monkeys had a few possible directions they could take. Their first two albums were both well received, but dramatically different. With sounds spanning from the riotous, young swagger of 2006's Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, to the angst-stricken swoon of 2007's Favourite Worst Nightmare, not to mention Alex Turner's 60s-obsessed work with The Last Shadow Puppets, it was really anyone's guess what was in store. What was clear at the third album mark is that the band needed to make a dramatic move. As much of a departure as Favourite Worst Nightmare was, it almost seemed like a snapshot, caught in the middle of a larger transition. There were obvious changes like surf-influenced guitars and a move towards a generally darker sound, but the band still fit into their old skin. Humbug, however, feels like the product of the full transition. Without losing themselves in the process, they've embraced a whole new set of influences (Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, etc.), and made a record that once again sets them apart in a crowded scene.
Starting with "My Propeller", you can immediately throw away any notion of getting something you've heard before. It's noticeably looser than your average Arctic Monkeys tune from the get go, and then it quickly becomes ominous and brooding. It showcases a dark side of the band that we have only seen in short glimpses previously, and from there it only gets more pronounced as "Crying Lightning" takes us deep into an eerie, Willy Wonkan world of oddities. As Turner continues to let his imagination run wild with imagery, the songs twist and change form. In many cases, what you start with is a far-cry from the end point, and the ride in between is never dull. Only after fully engaging their audience in the unfamiliar does the band give a subtle nod to its roots on "Dangerous Animals", which has the classic bounce of "Dancing Shoes", with the addition of reverb spring impacts for accents.
The next track, "Secret Door" begins with a sweeping melody, reminiscent of "The Only Ones Who Know", that eventually morphs into a steady gallop, and then floats back down on Turner's softly sung refrain. But even here in one of the album's lighter moments, there is a tangible hint of cynicism, as always. The guys continue to extend their prowess on "Potion Approaching", which features thundering drums and a half-time breakdown, sounding like a giant trudging through a wooded countryside. This is one of the points where the band starts to redefine their own niche by abandoning the playbook, but after listening, it isn't so hard to believe that they have always been capable of such dynamics.
As we enter the second half of the record, the experimentation continues into the rowdy "Fire and the Thud". This one starts with a vibe not too unlike The Doors' "Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)", before opening up to one of the record's catchiest hooks and a mess of guitar solos. It also features a supporting vocal performance by The Kills' Alison Mosshart, which serves as a nice contrast to Turner's own hushed grumble. The album's standout track, "Cornerstone" follows next, and although it is very much in the same vein as the rest of the album, it's clearly single material. The roughest edges of what we've seen thus far are softened and the subject matter turns to lost love and loneliness in the most straightforward sense, as Turner asks every new girl he meets, "Can I call you her name?" Reversed, Beatles' "I'm Only Sleeping"-esque guitars lead us out to "Dance Little Liar", where things pick up where they left off, and alternating machine-gun burst guitar riffs and high pitched squeals bend and wail over the frantic pounding of drums. Virtually without exception, every song on Humbug shows us the Arctic Monkeys in their most raw form ever put to tape.
Before bringing things to a complete close, the band still has a couple more tricks up their sleeves. They save the most scathing track on the record for second-to-last with "Pretty Visitors". It rages along as fast and hard as old standbys like "I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor", but with an unsettling organ and word-spun images of snake pit shadows. From there, the haunting, "The Jeweller's Hands" closes out the record on an energetic cliffhanger as lingering guitars and chimey key strokes continue plugging away, with the volume eventually fading out to silence.
The biggest thing I took away from this album on first listen was the incredible amount of musical growth displayed. In the three years since Whatever People Say I Am, this is a band that has changed dramatically but logically, and not just for the sake of it. Now, after giving it many more listens, Humbug has just continued getting better. For a band like Arctic Monkeys, who so suddenly stumbled into international superstardom as fresh-faced kids, staying above the hype is always a concern. Even now that they're older, and an established wrecking force in the genre, it always helps to deliver the goods, and that is just what they do. They keep it interesting, and they do it with staying power. I can see myself actively listening to this one for quite some time.
Best Track: "Cornerstone"