Review Summary: "If you've a lesson to teach me, I'm listening, ready to learn..."
It doesn’t matter what genre of music or artist you’re talking about, there are only 2 types of music fans: Those who welcome experimentation from their favorite artists, and others who want them to stick with the same sound that attracted them in the first place. There have been a multitude of examples throughout history when a popular artist surprises their fanbase by releasing something completely unexpected. Some albums that come to mind are: Led Zeppelin III
, Metallica's Black Album
, Radiohead's Kid A
, and recently, Arctic Monkeys' third album, Humbug
Arctic Monkeys have become quite the perplexing phenomenon in the recent decade. A band that started out as four young boys handing out recorded demos to anyone who would care to give them a listen, to playing sold-out gigs at bars and clubs throughout England that they weren't even legally allowed to be in. Their music drew influence from Post-punk Revival contemporaries like The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, and The Libertines and eventually surpassed them both in fame and musicianship as they rose to the top of the Indie Rock food chain.
To the naked eye, it may seem that there isn't really anything truly special within the music of Arctic Monkeys. Their first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
, consisted of fast paced pop-rock songs fueled with catchy arrangements of power chords, manic drumming, and lyrics inspired by the awkward, and at times strenuous experiences that one encounters as a young adult - Does this formula sound familiar? Well, it should because it's the exact same recipe every rock band seems to follow nowadays. Why? Why not. It's something we can all relate to, thus the artist develops a connection with it's core audiences, and Alex Turner's lyrics have done just that. The sexual and social awkwardness of youth, relationships, the uncertainties of the future - Alex Turner has developed quite the talent in discussing these subjects in a poetic manner within the band's music.
Don't get me wrong, the Arctic Monkeys are a talented group, but sadly, it's already been done before. Their style of music and their lyrics hardly seemed to separate them from the countless other Indie bands that seem to be getting record deals in today's music. But there is this quality within the Arctic Monkeys, an undefinable quality and I'm not talking about talent but that certain spark. It's that "thing" that we see in all of the bands that manage to capture our attention and make us like them. It's hard to describe what that "thing" is, or how to obtain it because you either have it or you don't - and that determines whether you're the next big thing or just a nameless band living under the radar.
The Arctic Monkeys began to develop an urge for experimentation during the recording sessions for Favourite Worst Nightmare
, as a means to separate themselves from their contemporaries and it can be seen throughout the album and it's B-sides. They began to experiment with ambient effects which are evident in songs like; "Only Ones Who Know"
, "If You Were There, Beware"
, and "505"
- These tracks displayed a departure from the their typical manic pop-rock recipe, while embracing a more artistic route. Notable B-sides like; "Matador"
, "The Death Ramps"
, and "Too Much To Ask"
, all seem to show a growing interest in synthesizers and psychedelic guitar effects. All of these songs foreshadowed and heralded their new era, what Humbug was destined to sound like. It was right there in front of our faces for our perception, but we still didn't expect it. Judging by their recent change in style, we got the feeling that Arctic Monkeys were going to go for an emphasis on a more psychedelic atmosphere for their next album, and now all they needed was the right person to guide them. Now, to talk about the sound of Humbug, we have to mention the role of Josh Homme as the producer of the album. Humbug truly reflects Queens Of The Stone Age's 4th album, Lullabies To Paralyze, as they both diverted from the heavier and fast paced music of it's predecessors for a more darker atmosphere and haunting sound.
The album starts off with "My Propeller"
, with it's mellow psychedelic guitar effects, hypnotic drumbeat, and overall nocturnal sound. Right from the beginning we get the notion that these aren't the same boys we knew from Sheffield. "Crying Lightning"
shares a similar quality but picks up the pace. "Crying Lightning"
is a prime example of the exquisite newfound synergy the Arctic Monkeys and Josh Homme have developed during their sessions in the California desert. The song perfectly combines the youthful drive found in the music of Arctic Monkeys with the much more mature and experimental qualities found in the musical structure of Queens Of The Stone Age. As for the lyrics of Alex Turner, there is some ambiguity within the meanings behind "My Propeller"
and "Crying Lightning"
, but there is a sense of sexuality within the imagery Alex Turner paints in our heads and it's no doubt that Josh Homme had something to do with it. In fact, the sexual imagery is most evident in the third track, "Dangerous Animals"
. The line, "Let's make a mess, Lioness" - Nothing subtle about that. We shouldn't be at all surprised that some of the bravado and sexual energy that seems to drive Josh Homme's music has rubbed off on Alex Turner's lyrics.
is at times catchy and a prime example of Matt Helders' development as a drummer, but it's a weak point for the album. The rest of the songs on the album seem to have perfect fusion of the old Arctic Monkeys with the new Josh Homme-influenced psychedelic sound, but this is the only track were it actually feels like the Arctic Monkeys are trying to be Queens Of The Stone Age and it comes out to a subpar result. Every album has it's weak track, and for Humbug, this one's it. But Humbug redeems itself with the next track, "Secret Door"
. The song has an almost “Dream-like” atmosphere and is beautifully orchestrated from beginning to end. "Secret Door"
share similar formulas in that they are both rich with a romantic atmosphere which makes them stand out from the other much more sinister sounding songs. "Cornerstone"
, as ill-fitting as it may be on this album with it's sense of innocence, is more than welcomed and a breath of fresh air. It's like the only bright star shining down the dark desert scenery of Humbug. But just when we think that some light might be getting ready to shine on this gloomy world that Arctic Monkeys have brought us to, Humbug eclipses it with dark shadows in the form of "Fire and The Thud"
and "Dance Little Liar"
. Both songs, wrapped in a packaging of trippy psychedelia, will leave the listener breathless. Within the music and the lyrics, the Arctic Monkeys have reached a new level of artistry that deserves to be applauded. Both songs share a similar formula of slow but smooth psychedelic tempos that are just hypnotizing throughout, while ending on loud and extravagant high notes.
Now, don't be alarmed. There are still a few times that Humbug re-assures us that this is still an Arctic Monkeys' album. "Potion Approaching"
, with it's fast-paced guitar driven sound and thundering drums, desperately trying to convince the listener that there is still some Sheffield left in the boys, but it's hard to believe it with all of it's drug-induced imagery and psychedelic mid-section. Yet another moment when Josh Homme reassures us that he is still the primary producer. "Pretty Visitors"
is another fast-paced track and the heaviest song on the album. Starting off with it's ghastly organ introduction, "Pretty Visitors"
is a highly welcomed borderline Prog-rock pulse-raiser from an otherwise mellow album. And finally we a depart with "The Jeweller's Hands"
, the denouement. A song that rivals “505”
as the best album finale the band has ever written. It's haunting psychedelic atmosphere keeps us hypnotized, setting the perfect mood for Alex Turner's Jim Morrison-like lyrical poetry. It is an ominous, yet spellbinding experience right to the very end.
Humbug is an album with very few flaws musically, but I fear that it is an album that will be handed to an undeserving audience. The Arctic Monkeys' fanbase consists of primarily young listeners with a taste for more upbeat pop-rock songs, who aren't exactly knowledgable of how dark the other side of the moon can get. Humbug is a darker album not fitted for the average listener, and thus, will be destined to be the misunderstood one of the Arctic Monkey's discography but it is definitely their most significant accomplishment. This was a metamorphosis, a transformation, and a bold one at that. Instead of remaining with the "Post-Punk" sound that had made them famous, they decided to go down a more precarious route and expand their horizons.
Alex Turner has always been a clever lyrical writer, and many critics have praised him for it. With every album his creativity grew. Many critics praise Humbug for it's experimental nature and it's much more mature songwriting. Instead of writing songs about "snappy dressers" named Brian, or engaging in teenage debauchery throughout the night-life of England, like the ones found in their last two albums, Alex became a much more poetic and metaphorical writer in Humbug. This isn’t “Favorite Worst Nightmare”, or “Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not”, and it’s not suppose to be. This is an album entirely all its own and to the enlightened listener who dares to give it a chance, will find it a highly rewarding experience.