Review Summary: Have they lost a step with this one? Bah Humbug!
When "Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not" was released in 2006, the Sheffield four were 19. It became the fastest selling debut by a British band (aren’t The Beatles British!?). Since then they have evolved their sound and style while becoming indie rock’s darlings in the process. The Arctic Monkeys have made all the right moves so far in their young career, so why is it that many were so skeptical about their choice to have Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age fame) produce most of the tracks on their latest record? Were you one of these skeptics? Thought that he’d tamper with their sound? Maybe you were afraid Homme wouldn’t get their British sense of humour (which is often present in their lyrics)? Well I’m here to put these concerns to rest.
First off, let me start by injecting a big dose of reality into anyone who will buy this album thinking it will be as upbeat and aggressive as their first two…It won’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s a step backwards. For the first time, each member’s full potential is reached on this record. Some inspired drumming from Matt Helders, pulsing bass-lines provided by Nick O’Malley and some of the most creative guitar effects Jamie Cook's ever used make this their most complete effort to date. “Humbug” is a musical experiment and Homme is the head scientist, but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one. While it’s true that this album has a dark, psychedelic influence that has Queens of the Stone Age written all over it, “Humbug” is clearly Alex Turner’s show.
“Propeller” kicks this one off and sets the tone for the rest of the album. Yes this is definitely Arctic Monkeys, but something’s different… The subject matter’s still there with the tongue pressed firmly against the cheek (“My propeller won’t spin, and I can’t get it started on my own”) but it no longer has the same innocence attached to it. While this one won’t wow you, it’s a safe choice as the opener. Next is the single “Crying Lightning” which features the trashy hi-hat beats and thumping bass that you’d expect from them. The British influence is once again very evident in the lyrics, while the Josh Homme influence is evident in the guitar sound. This combination meshes together nicely, but it will take the hardcore fan a few listens to get used to this new direction. “Dangerous Animals” is the closest the purist is going to get to their early stuff here. The riff structure and the timing remind me of some arrangements off of “Favourite Worst Nightmare.” That being said, this one’s good but “Secret Door” is easily the best. It has all the necessary ingredients that make a great song. Creative use of time changes, harmonies, squealing guitars and the vocal delivery make this one sound like a late addition to "Abbey Road". Throw in a dash of genius: “Like a butler pushing on a bookshelf revealing the unexpected/I, who was earlier reluctant, was suddenly embarrassed and corrected/how could such a creature survive in such a habitat?” mix well.
“Potion Approaching” speeds things up for the better, and returns to the twangy guitar rock that the Monkeys occasionally dabble in. Clever wordplay in the chorus as the band ghostly hums: “yours is the only ocean,” to which Turner responds: “that I want to swing from.” “Cornerstone” is another highlight. Turner is barhopping, looking for a lost love only to find women that look similar. He eventually runs into her sister, (“She was close, well you couldn’t get much closer/she said I’m really not supposed to, but yes…you can call me anything you want”) and ends the song there, leaving much to be desired. This is what sets him apart from other lyricists. He writes stories that draw the listener in and leave them wondering long after the track clock ticks to zero. “Pretty Visitors” is an okay song trying to be a good one. The haunting organ in the chorus helps its cause but I just can’t give it the same respect I gave the other songs.
Despite flashes of the old Monkeys, “Humbug” is dominated by slow, sometimes over-indulgent, psychedelic songs. “The Jeweller’s Hands,” “Dance Little Liar” and “Fire And The Thud” are each unique in their own rights, but all share a similar sound. “Fire And The Thud “(with backing vocals provided by Alison Mosshart of The Kills) is not as over-indulgent as the other two, this is the slow song done perfect. “Dance Little Liar” is another good one, but the lyrics stand out more than anything else: “...and you can never get it spotless/when there's dirt beneath the dirt.” They end it with “The Jeweller’s Hands” which is the longest track and probably could’ve been cut shorter. Great musicianship is once again on display as this one slows the album to a stop.
While this may not be the Arctic Monkeys best album, it is their most important. It is a huge sign of growth experimenting with new ideas and sounds. Fans should be excited as “Humbug” has opened up the potential for the fourth disc to be their best yet.