By David M. Goldstein | 28 August 2009
Give the Arctic Monkeys credit: they’ve seemingly hit on the perfect formula for wringing career longevity out of what could have been a flash in the pan debut. The very good Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006) has the nutty distinction of being the fastest selling British debut album of all time. So they negated the sophomore jinx by literally rushing Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007) to the shelves before anyone had a chance to grow tired of Whatever (think Internal Wrangler  chased by Walking With Thee ). And then frontman Alex Turner spent much of 2008 engaged with the Last Shadow Puppets, a cred-building, Scott Walker-influenced side project bolstered by the totally awesome, Bolshevik-era Russia inspired video for single “The Age of the Understatement.” Surely these guys aren’t fucking around—counting Turner’s side project, they’ve released an album a year since 2006. Of course it also helps that their rhythm section is tighter than a bank vault, and Turner has a ridiculously self-assured swagger about him, with a knack for British slice of life vignettes that led much of the ravenous British press to anoint him the heir apparent to the likes of Cocker and Albarn.
Humbug is being hailed as the record on which the Arctic Monkeys “grow up,” irrespective of the fact that Alex Turner is only 23. To this end, they enlisted Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme for production duties, and recorded seven of Humbug’s ten tracks at his ranch in the Mojave Desert. One might think that a stoner, robo-rock manly man like Homme would turn this gaggle of twenty-something cocksure Brits into a lumbering behemoth. But aside from cranking up the bass in terms of both volume and fuzz, Homme doesn’t significantly alter the Monkeys’ blend of crunchy riffs and whiplash tempo changes so much as run it through a funhouse mirror. Drummer Matt Helders remains the most important member of this band, his bonkers skill set being something that reportedly drew Homme to the band in the first place.
So let’s call Humbug the sonic equivalent of the prior two Monkeys’ records, only with extra doses of spookiness and camp, not unlike a particularly poltergeist laden episode of Scooby-Doo. Note bends and slide guitar licks to nowhere are in abundance, and the whole thing smacks of a burnt-out, haunted house vibe that song titles like “Secret Door” and “Potion Approaching” suggest was not a coincidence. This approach goes far heavier on atmosphere than before, but still yields some significantly catchy songs, and as has been this band’s wont, they’re primarily in the first half.
Despite being one of the three songs on Humbug recorded after the Josh Homme sessions, opener “My Propeller” could actually pass for a QOTSA track, its heavy riff giving way to a downtuned melody line with a suddenly sleazy Alex Turner encouraging a female to “Coax me out my love / And have a spin on my propeller.” (Ew.) First single “Crying Lightning” is the album’s best track, and the one in which the Homme/Monkeys pairing is most fully realized: a lurching fuzz march anchored by a seasick slide guitar snaking its way through the song like a lost soul. The track also features the first (and best) use of the noun “pick n’ mix,” namely, the do-it-yourself candy array at America’s finest movie establishments, in a song (Turner’s object of affection is partial to “gobstoppers” and “strawberry rips”).
The best songs on Humbug proceed in similar fashion, with queasy guitar leads weaving amongst decidedly heavier riffs and Turner’s wry observations. The hooks don’t sink in quite as quickly as compared to prior Monkeys’ efforts, but there’s also a lot more going on, and the newfound emphasis on atmosphere prevents Humbug from having the Side-B blahs that were prevalent on Favourite Worst Nightmare. Three albums in four years with evidence of something approaching evolution? Don’t bet against these guys.