Arctic Monkeys Humbug

[Domino; 2009]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: garage rock, brit rock
Others: The Last Shadow Puppets, Scott Walker, Pete Doherty

Finally, three albums in, those trite Strokes comparisons are working in Arctic Monkeys' favor. Since their debut, Sheffield's finest have been gradually fleshing out their sound, looking for ways to sublimate their post-pubescent energies into a more mature form. As with any maturation process, Arctic Monkeys haven't grown up without moments of awkwardness, but their willingness to try out new sounds — or old sounds, in the case of their new album — has certainly served them well.

Humbug, in many ways, is more reminiscent of a Last Shadow Puppets record than either of Arctic Monkeys' previous albums. What differentiates the album from that side project is the band's tougher, harder sound; coupled with the fatalistic pop croon Alex Turner honed in The Last Shadow Puppets, Arctic Monkeys have channeled their wise-ass inner-city attitude into the romantic (and retro-styled) garage tradition. But Humbug's classic garage signifiers are not falter-free. Plainly put, Humbug is the band's least immediate record. There are no “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” or “Florescent Adolescents” here; even lead single “Crying Lightning,” as one of the album's catchiest songs, fails to match the barreling force of their older hits.

If Humbug is lacking in immediacy, however, it has atmosphere to burn. Thanks in part to Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Ages, Kyuss), who produced eight of Humbug's 10 offerings, the album sustains a grimy, sinister mood throughout its duration. Turner's lyrics also help foster the album's mysterious air. He writes about love and loss with fantastical phrasing. The magic he sings of is not of a Hogwarts or Narnian variety, but rather of street illusions and sleights-of-hand. And it's anything but a slog. Preempting any accusations of samey-soundingness, the more tightly wound and wounded-feeling songs — like “Crying Lightning” and “My Propeller” — are balanced with airier, less aggressive fare.

As a result, the record feels cohesive in a way their first two albums did not. Turner's verbosity, in fine form here, has always lent Arctic Monkeys a short-form fiction feel. But Humbug possesses internal momentum, a novelistic thrust that ultimately proves satisfying, even when some individual songs engage in little more than mood-setting. Softer songs like “Secret Door” and “Cornerstone,” which feel somewhat out of place, are nonetheless perfectly timed to momentarily ease the tension. “Cornerstone” in particular, Humbug's finest from a standalone perspective, is a solid showcase for Arctic Monkey's newly traditionalist strengths; describing a post-break up tryst in specific but recognizable phrasing, the song captures the melancholy feeling of falling in and out of love. Musical mismatch notwithstanding, the song — packed with references to ghosts and tricks — fits smartly within the thematic context of the record.

After that brief respite, the album builds to a furious close. “Pretty Visitors,” a bilious, violent rant of a song serves as a fitting conclusion to the album. And if “Pretty Visitors” provides the climax, then “The Jeweller's Hands” — Humbug's final song — is the album's rueful denouement. More obligation than afterthought, it resolves the narrative themes of the record while still feeling somewhat anticlimactic. That it succeeds more as a literary device than as a song highlights Arctic Monkeys’ growing ambitions.

Gradually revealing its strengths, Arctic Monkeys have pulled off a rare musical trick of their own; they've finally made an album that grows upon consideration, a record that feels accomplished and complete. Humbug is a retro-leaning rock album that is interesting in ways that other garage-revivalists (see: Reatard, Jay) rarely manage to be. Arctic Monkeys have grown up and their old labels no longer fit them. With Humbug, they've finally matriculated out of the class of the 00s, outpacing and outclassing their former peers.

1. My Propeller
2. Crying Lightning
3. Dangerous Animals
4. Secret Door
5. Potion Approaching
6. Fire And The Thud
7. Cornerstone
8. Dance Little Liar
9. Pretty Visitors
10. The Jeweller's Hands

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