Review Summary: Josh Homme takes Turner and company to the Gadda Da Vida.
It's pretty much impossible to think of Humbug
without referring back to Josh Homme's role as producer - his grubby fingerprints are all over this album, which is shot through with a psychedelic heaviness unseen before on an Arctic Monkeys album. This is no normal producer/artist relationship - this is a George Martin-Beatles democracy of ideas, a set-up where Homme assumes the role of Brian Eno and Alex Turner is David Byrne, or David Bowie, or Bono.
Now that SOUNDS like a good thing, but when it comes to things they haven't heard, most music fans are prone to assuming the best and not having any real perspective. After hearing the phrase 'Queens of the Stone Age meets Arctic Monkeys', they will automatically imagine Songs for the Deaf
blended with Whatever People Say I Am...
- it's what we do. But this is not the Josh Homme of 2002 and this is not the Arctic Monkeys of 2005. Both have been in decline since, Homme in particular - it's been five years since he put his name to anything good. Meanwhile, the Arctics showed on Favourite Worst Nightmare
and Who the *** Are Arctic Monkeys?
that while their good ideas remained as good as the ones on their debut, their bad ideas had been getting worse.
So in reality, it's not too surprising that Humbug
is the weakest Arctic Monkeys album yet. What is surprising, though, is where the strengths and weaknesses of this album lie. You'd expect the songs to impress and the sound to disappoint, and yet, the exact opposite is true.
However regularly Homme has disappointed since Songs for the Deaf
made him a star, and whatever stories have come out about his personal life, you simply can't fault what he does here - the sound is basically perfect. The Monkeys themselves may have been pictured wearing Black Sabbath t-shirts and talking excitedly about discovering heavy metal, but the primary influences here come not from Iommi and company, but instead from the heavy end of late '60s psychedelia - Iron Butterfly in particular, but traces of Cream and Blue Cheer are here too. How much of that influence comes from the Monkeys themselves and how much comes from Homme is up for debate, but regardless, as a way of moving the band's sound forward and away from the rapidly-declining indie scene that spawned them, it's bold and it's a huge success. It feels natural too, which is possibly the album's greatest strength - this is a world apart from their first two albums, but at times it just feels like they were meant
to get to this point.
Sadly, that just makes the songwriting doubly disappointing.
Pointing out Alex Turner's lyrics as the reason people got interested in his band in the first place is hardly a great revelation, but that doesn't make it any less true. Whipsmart one-liners are his stock in trade and he's better at them than just about any of his contemporaries - lines like 'There's only music so that there's new ringtones' are memorable after just one listen. And yet, after the first listen to Humbug
, I found myself struggling to remember anything apart from one scream of 'Dickhead!' and a thinly-vieled line about propellers and erectile dysfunction. Erectile dysfunction is something of a theme to the album, in fact; Turner spends large portions of the album singing about sex, but he generally seems completely disinterested by it. Given how well he writes about love and tenderness - "505", "Despair in the Departure Lounge" - it's a shame to see him flounder when presented with a topic that, if rock history is to be believed, is a lot easier to write songs about. And even when he departs from the topic, the bad ideas continue to get worse - I'm fairly certain nobody needs to be told how "Dangerous Animals" is spelt, and who exactly convinced him that a Woolworths pick'n'mix counter would be good subject matter for "Crying Lightning"? Lord knows why this was chosen as the single - it's a pretty consistent album, but if I were forced to choose a worst song, I'd plump for this one. "Pretty Visitors" clangs too, its sudden tempo shifts making Turner sound almost exactly like George Formby.
Still, even with the band's star player letting his side down, this is a good album. Moreover, it offers tantalizing glimpses of where the band might go next. The biggest hurdle facing them was the need to develop, and they've cleared it with flying colours. If Turner can return to his best - and there's reason to suspect he can't - then the possibilities open to them are potentially limitless. Then, Humbug
will be seen a stepping stone. That's certainly how it feels now.