Review Summary: A daring move from an unlikely candidate that pays off in the end.
Sometimes bands need to pull one over on their fans and do something for themselves in experimentation. Straight from their debut, the Arctic Monkeys created a specific sound, image, and attitude for themselves in the music scene. They were pretty much all figured out to be these British post-punks singing about girls on the dance floor and once pointing out to us that in our hype’n’whore society, “There’s only music so that there’s new ringtones
.” They hit hard, they hit fast, and they spun around on twangy guitars. After receiving much love from critics and indieheads alike, they throw a curveball our way and state that this third album will be much more "psychedelic" than their last two. The tunes near the end of Favourite Worst Nightmare
pop into my head. I remember them being quiet, ambient-filled, slow... I started to fear they would be an advocate for what to expect with Humbug
. To my surprise (and relief) the album's experimental mission doesn't cover up their loud riotous roots as much as you'd expect.
One of the most distinct changes right off the bat is the switch in disposition. Being that this is the cloudiest sound the band has managed, the accustomed skeleton they've used many times before gets a bit of a makeover. The usual dance had Alex Turner spitting out hook after hook of vocal lines and the other members guiding him along finding guitar riffs as simple and catchy as their singer’s voice. The drumming fell in place and did a great job keeping the energy up and consistent. That song has ended this time around, and now the instruments are leading the slower, darker grooves. Listening to “My Propeller” feels like watching the couple in this analogy in the middle of the switch. At first, it takes some getting used to. Alex's voice is really relaxed (almost too relaxed being that it's the first song) as he mourns: "My propeller won't spin/And I can't get it started on my own/When are you arriving"
The song truly does have a small issue getting the album started on its own because it doesn’t dive anywhere especially deep or inviting besides debuting their despair with a ‘Bowser’s castle’ type riff at the close. At most, sadly, it acts more like a kicker to their single, “Crying Lightning”, which better upholds the promised fusion of their consuming hooks entangled with psychedelic elements. The beat is alive, the guitar is employing a ghastly slide, the bass is buzzing... It's a great tune for the record and hardens up to end it effectively.
The ghost-funk workings of “Dangerous Animals” gives a nice edge to our listening experience with producer Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age) moaning in his easily-identifiable ghoul-like voice to create a haunting touch. If you don’t mind songs that spell out their titles, (flashback of Gwen…) then the song rises above acceptable. It's safe to say that you don’t have to listen very hard to sense Homme’s input in Humbug
. He does a great job making you feel as though they bring the Mojave Desert they recorded in straight to your ears.
In fact, everything about “Fire And The Thud” screams “Josh Homme in a desert!” from the light and easy drums playing over maracas to the jazzy guitar in the verses. Homme's specialty of making songs grimy and moody without resulting in boredom does wonders for the band's transformation into maturity. When “Potion Approaching” starts playing, many fans will sigh with relief. The bass and drum rhythms strike as a memory of the Monkeys’ debut days where bassist Nick O’Malley and drummer Matt Helders really correspond with each other, driving the song with precision. I can't help but feel that when the song slows down to that 'paralyzed' feel, it's done really well and lasts just enough.
The album, believe it or not, is filled with constant surprises. Turner has always thrown stories into his lyrics here and there, but with "Cornerstone" (the only happy-sounding song on the album and even that's a stretch) he takes it to a higher level. "I thought I saw you in the Battleship/But it was only a look alike...
" How cute. Alex's longing for his lover has affected his senses and makes him hallucinate the girl he's after again and again. The fluffy, dreamy track serves as a breakthrough to sophistication (then Alex runs into the girl's sister, and well...).
Before becoming too turned off by the softness, let’s get to the song that stands out the most for obvious reason - "Pretty Visitors". From here on out will be the clearest vision of Whatever People Say I Am...
as the track blasts off holding nothing back. After the drums unload a triplet-frenzied stack of measures, Turner shows he still has humor spread out in his writing and asks "What came first - the chicken or the dickheads"
" in a much needed call for delinquency.
The only segment coming close to this kind of speed would be the guitar and bass drilling near the end of "Dance Little Liar". Some things never change, it seems, as the traditional slowest and longest last song keeps up the album's theme of impending choruses circling around ghostly screeches. "The Jeweller's Hand" conducts the album to a close.
is an erratic change of sound for Arctic Monkeys. It's moodier and darker than anything they've played before. It was beneficial of the band to take time to experiment with different sounds instead of recycling the same techniques because it doesn't take imagination to think of a British rock band that has fallen to the trap of redundancy and predictability by their third release. At times, however, you could swear you were listening to a mix purely composed of Queens of the Stone Age and The Age Of the Understatement
. It might take a few extra listens, but we have here a solid and ominous grower for the band’s most courageous effort. Underneath it all, the old Monkeys are still here, only using the Pink Floyd influences and spooky effects to give the songs more substance instead of overdosing on colorless ambience.
Once in a while, though, with songs like “Secret Door” bouncing between boring to drowsy, it’s easy to see why their fans were nervous in the first place. The distance of Turner's voice and the overall buoyancy suggests that it would be more suitable as a Last Shadow Puppets' song. Like deja-vu of the very first time they poked their heads into the music scene, the renewed sound leaves us asking not Who the F*** Are the Arctic Monkeys"
– but more like Who the F*** Are the Arctic Monkeys This Time"