Review Summary: You're gonna be fighting with your sheets, but you ain't gonna lose any sleep over this one...
For a band who grew out of earnest Northern-English soil, the Monkeys are quite self-righteous. I don’t blame Alex Turner for venting his retrogressive tendencies on a disposable side-project, but it’s got to a point where people are beginning to mistake the Yorkshire whine and down-home lyrics of their salient debut as ‘honesty’. Subliminally, perhaps they were a little more statement-oriented than we all initially suspected; the peer-bashing, imitator-hating ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’ had as much cheerful invective, and a sliver more cheeky hypocrisy (given AM’s sonic debt to the Libertines), as the early Stone Roses. In the wake that followed the album, the public couldn’t help but instil it with more depth than was meant and gild it with as many accolades as were available. They carried themselves with a lot more style on the follow up to their 2006-stealing album, this time pointing the barrel at individual characters (slicked-back media suits and cheeky Japanese c***s, sluts and lovers, thugs and barbarous youths) with a greater level of urgency and more impassioned grooves than before. The band, and the public, let the album slide into relative obscurity on its own greasy, depraved underbelly, its payload of underdeveloped kitchen-sink storylines and half-stolen musicalities going largely unnoticed. But with ‘Humbug’, it’s hard not to wonder if the band wanted to be so deliberately self-effacing, when you see that their affinity for quasi-Edwardian treble and the period word for ‘hoax’ have come into alignment. People, this isn’t the same Arctic Monkeys you’ve come to expect.
Alex Turner’s skill as a lyricist has never been achieving emotional resonance; even on previous attempts he’s made in the Monkeys of skewering the heart of relationships (Favourite Worst Nightmare’s ‘Only Ones Who Know’, possibly the worst song in their oeuvre) have made him out to be a spectator of life as opposed to an actor. He might think that he knows humans, but he only knows people. His wordplay, while often deft and fluid, is consistently bone-cold. Still, Turner’s eye for all things awkwardly social is what won his band so much adulation when ‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ came out, and this was an edge he tempered with the theatrical on the follow-up. However, ‘Humbug’ sees him fully attempting to throw his arms around his fickle fascination with John Cooper Clarke, occasionally fostering a bastard-child of the character in the cover Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ (ironically the most sturdily written thing the band have produced this time around). The thing is, Turner seems to confuse his perspective on Clarke’s surreal postmodernism as being some profound, poetic ambiguity, but in honesty he sometimes manages to knee-cap every memorable line (‘When I last caught my reflection it was on its way to meet you’) with at least two lines that can only be expressed as pretentious, fabricated bull*** (The lines about thoughts that got rude and benches with toothache on ‘Crying Lightning’).
No, but in truth, Turner’s lyrics are frequently wonderful. Stories are spun-off, weaved, crooned, recited. Provincially he’s graduated aswell. If Sheffield, in various states of undress, was the stage for ‘Whatever…’ and ‘…Nightmare’, Turner has swapped it in for Romantic-era Vienna, where the Royal Courts are profane and there’s one impoverished Mozart-figure to every alleyway and street-corner. ‘Cornerstone’, in particular, is one of the great musical narratives of the 21st century so far, a tale of desperation and eventual infidelity which could only be more transfixing if it was set to some sort of primate-tableau.
However, as a songwriter, Turner has improved exponentially. At the time of the band’s debut, Turner was bonding so many riffs into the space of a single song (there were three in the first 30 seconds of ‘…Dancefloor’ alone) that he was crafting the type of excessive (musical) decadence that his lyrics made such a major job of subtly offsetting and despising. While the album does lay claim to several very verbose guitar motifs, Turner tempers the majority of the verses with figures that compliment the atmosphere of the groove and do something to shove it along (but only a bit). Turner also uncovers newer musical influences with the vistas of ‘Crying Lightning’ and ‘Secret Door’, the album’s two best songs, the former robbing Queens of the Stone Age of their desert jaunt and the latter grinning with the forlornness of Johnny Marr’s Rickenbacker. That said, he’s still prone to instances of reiteration syndrome (‘Dangerous Animals’ is just a plaid rewrite of the debut’s ‘Vampires’) and being anti-commercial for the sake of the self-consciously ‘alternative’ bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs who the Monkeys probably consider to be their peers (the stomping, awful ‘Very Ape’ imitation ‘Potion Approaching’).
Well, no matter how many unfulfilled potentials and glyphic f**k-ups that litter this record, it puts to rest one critically nagging notion about this band: that their appeal subsides solely on energy and, well, more energy. The songs are thoughtful, a little slower, given room to expand. Not only does the road wind more than the Monkeys’ previous efforts, but it takes detours, it has nuances, it has replay value. The Monkeys might still have a truly epoch-defining endeavour slumbering within them, but if politics or whatever conspired to end their run today, they’d be able to rest in peace that they were the imitation of the real thing. A stylish, enthusiastic imitation of the real thing, but false nonetheless. They are not what the world has been waiting for. The Arctic Monkeys likely will never earn that title, but this is enough for ravenous minds.