Review Summary: A moody outcast which represents a key moment in the band's career.
Sophomore albums may often be cited as the biggest challenge for up-and-coming bands, but in reality things can be a lot more difficult third time around. Record number three is often the point where some of the most important decisions have to be made, and it is these choices which can ultimately define the rest of a band's career. This conundrum was made obvious to Sheffield quartet Arctic Monkeys following the phenomenal success of their first two full-lengths. They had two choices; follow the example of Favourite Worst Nightmare by persisting with their tried and tested formula, or go off on a tangent by exploring new musical pathways and expanding on their established sound. Going with the former risked fading to irrelevance as musical trends and listener habits inevitably move on, while the latter was even more treacherous since it risked alienating existing fans who had fallen in love with their earlier work.
As it turns out, Arctic Monkeys not only went with the latter – but took it to it’s extreme. Almost completely abandoning the carefree indie-punk of their first two outings, the band engaged in an exuberant stoner-rock U-turn, enlisting the help of the genre’s messiah, Josh Homme, and even recording in his famous Joshua Tree studio in the middle of the Californian desert. Although only officially declared producer, the partnership acted as more of a collaboration, with Homme lending his distinctive vocal to a handful of the album’s tracks and the collision of styles yielded predictably obscure results. Tempos were slowed down significantly, the spiky riffs were replaced with a noticeably denser and heavier guitar sound, and, perhaps most importantly, tunes were largely left behind in favour of a more thoughtful, textured approach.
It was a process which brought about some fairly mixed results. The lack of any real hooks means that some of the tracks end up stuck in a state of mundane limbo, and even some of the more memorable cuts such as My Propeller and Crying Lightning come nowhere near packing the same punch as the majority of the band’s earlier output. As such, the tracks which carry the biggest changes are often among the record’s highlights. Take Potion Approaching, for example – a song which includes a QOTSA-style robotic riff which the band pull off with surprising finesse and which proves a lot more enjoyable than some of the gloomy sludge with which it is surrounded. Better still is the woozy stoner stomp Dance Little Liar, the bottom most pit of Humbug’s darker tendencies which is as appetising as it is shocking coming from a band who had given few previous hints of such a doom-ridden direction. However, the undoubted gem in Humbug’s armory comes in the shape of the most Arctic Monkeys-like song on offer – the glorious ballad Cornerstone. Among the sluggish dirge, it’s wondrous melody stands out like a sore thumb, and acts as a welcome reminder of Alex Turner’s natural songwriting gift.
While Turner’s songwriting credentials can seem somewhat wasted on the majority of the record, his lyrical prowess only seems to progress and grow even further. He’s moved on from his initial tales of suburban trials and tribulations, and now settles for words of altogether more random topics. They may be less meaningful, but he nevertheless comes up with some terrific one-liners such as the immortal “what came first – the chicken or the dickhead?” which, in a way, prove just as enjoyable. The frontman has also slowed his delivery to a far more languid and considered style, which in effect means that his lyrics, along with their sheer absurdity, hit home more than ever before. It’s an adjustment which could prove challenging for the existing fan, but in truth, Humbug was never really intended to be a fan-pleasing record. Instead, the quartet aimed for a transitional release, experimenting with different styles to expand their sonic pallet. It may not be an entirely successful or brilliant album, but it nevertheless proves enjoyable through most of its duration, perhaps more so than it’s somewhat rushed predecessor. Perhaps more importantly, though, Humbug will be looked upon in the future as one of the key moments in the career of a fine band, and while it may not be their finest hour it’s certainly a vital stepping-stone.