Arctic Monkeys: “Humbug”

arcticmonkeys_humbug

Things have always moved fast for Arctic Monkeys. Their story, for those not in the know, goes something like this: They recorded a debut album, were instantaneously hailed as one of the greatest British bands ever, toured, cranked out another album, toured some more, and so on. The forward momentum of their career has been mirrored in the manic energy of their music; on album #2, Favourite Worst Nightmare, songs sped by at a blazing speed, spinning off in every which direction and suggesting a band that could follow their muse down any number of paths.

The path they’ve chosen: Slowing things down. But in a good way. Humbug arrives two years after Nightmare— a normal turnaround by most standards, but an extended hiatus for the Monkeys– and its pace is slowed dramatically. Not because they’ve gotten soft, but because they’ve gotten confident. Since their songs don’t rush by in such a flash, we can hear just how good their craft has grown. They get dark, even sinister, and a bit theatrical. They play with texture, making this the first Arctic Monkeys album on which you can actually pick up on more sonic details, buried in the mix, the more you play it. They distill their snarky wordplay into something focused and cohesive, and also a bit disturbing, though still very funny.

This is what the Arctic Monkeys sound like as grown-ups, their musical adolescence now firmly a thing of the past. Favourite Worst Nightmare was a record made by a band who loved rock and roll, and loved playing with it and absorbing it in all its many forms; it suggested that they could inherit the throne of just about any British band they wanted. On Humbug, they decide to settle for nothing less than being the Arctic Monkeys: This is the album where they forge a sound that is undeniably theirs and no one else’s.

Which is not to say there aren’t familiar touchstones, or that they didn’t have help along the way. Queen of the Stone Age Josh Homme produced the album, and his greatest triumph is in not making Arctic Monkeys sound like Queens of the Stone Age. Instead, he adds depth and dimension to the recordings– high harmonies floating above the songs, hand percussion gently shaking in the background. And he gives them room to stretch out: Though it’s only ten songs, Humbug covers more ground than either of their past LPs.

It’s expansive. This isn’t music that goes for the quick knockout, but music that unfolds, revealing layers of drama and humor, of twisted menace. And it is menacing: It has almost as much in common with Alex Turner’s Last Shadow Puppets project as with previous Monkeys albums. They probably owe a lot to Homme on this one; the mysterious desert mystic excels at nothing if not creating and sustaining a particular mood, and there’s a hushed spookiness to this record that makes all of it– the moments of kinetic rock, the moments of pure beauty– a bit ghastly and unsettling.

But for music so evocative and impressionistic, it’s important to note that the Artcic Monkeys haven’t lost their way as rock stars; they’ve simply gained perspective as showmen. The tempos are slower, but the firepower hasn’t diminished. Drummer Matt Helders is their secret weapon: His propulsive timekeeping keeps the menace rooted in rock and roll, and a streak of anarchy in even the slower songs. The band still has a penchant for angular riffs, and, on “Pretty Visitors,” they remind us of their uncannily youthful ability to fly completely off the handle.

Alex Turner continues his evolution from bratty rockstar into sinister crooner and Nick Cave acolyte: He’s a minstrel of lust and obsession, writing vivid and surreal songs of perverse desire and demented longing. He has a knock for wordplay, but he doesn’t just write in puns, like a young Elvis Costello; his is the fractured language of desperation, and he sings each word with relish, not spitting them out but controlling his delivery like a great performer. He still indulges his annoying tendency to spell out words in his songs (“Dangerous Animals”), but otherwise he writes in bizarre innuendos (“My Propeller”), grim tall tales (“Crying Lightning”), and ominous melodrama (“The Jeweller’s Hands”). On “Cornerstone,” his bent passion for a women grows so great that he starts seeing her everywhere, and insisting on calling other women by her name. Turner sells it with bleak humor and provocative malice; we know it’s sick, but we can’t turn away.

That’s a key to Humbug: It’s dark, but alluringly so. Its menace is tempered with humor, its demons excised through the sheer thunder and lightning of the drums and the guitars. It’s a sustained performance– not just a collection of songs– and it’s a fairly masterful one, at that: The point at which the Arctic Monkeys come into their own.

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