Arctic Monkeys - Humbug
Against a background of under-performing third albums in 2009, Arctic Monkeys return with their own effort and, wisely, they've neglected the pull towards the diskoteks that has seen some of their contemporaries fall harder than Beth Ditto from a high-wire. Instead, advance notices suggested they'd been looking west: to the scally psych of The Coral and desert-hewn heavy-riffery of co-producer Josh Homme's QotSA. Hopes were high then for ten tracks of finest Sheffield forged steel to save the day for Queen and country.
In reality, Humbug seems more like the rougher little brother to Alex Turner's stint as one of The Last Shadow Puppets, replacing that project's graceful sweep with more claustrophobic six-string interplay, albeit keeping the reverb and general Joe Meekery. It's a format the Monkey's used on a series of instantly forgettable b-sides during the promotion for their last album and, truth be told, it does not work much better over the entirety of an album.
Homme's influence is evident in the occasional stinging guitar solo but as he has discovered for himself, success is largely built on memorable hooks. There was a reason for Songs For The Deaf's success: (feelgood) hit after hit after hit. Humbug has something in common with Era Vulgaris in the distinct lack of anything that gets stuck in the brain. And Guitar Hero: Arctic Monkeys edition? I rather think not. Leaning heavily on a diet of vaguely sinister spy-movie licks, the cheeky appearance of the riff from Nirvana's 'Very Ape' on 'Potion Approaching' is a welcome respite from the mid-tempo repetition that makes up the bulk of the ten tracks.
Sonic disappointments aside, can Turner's words offer anything in the way of solace? Not substantially. Perhaps feeling pressured to continue the lauded John Cooper Clarke-isms of previous successes, the lyrics to Humbug are notably more generic, with few examples of his previous ability to pen those little vignettes that so captured a time and place. Only once, on the utterly charming 'Cornerstone' do the Arctic Monkeys of old re-emerge, as Turner tours round local watering holes, falling under the spell of dopplegangers of a previous partner ('I thought I saw you in the The Parrot's Beak / Messing with the fire alarm').
On this evidence, Monkeys gigs may be rather dour affairs in future. If, like the band, the boys in the audience have grown their hair, they will perhaps tug a little on their beards and watch Turner and Jamie Cook play off against each other, but the girls will be shuffling their feet waiting to be reminded of the songs that said something to them about their lives.
Is Humbug an early riposte to those who might find fault in the band's new maturity, their desire to move on from their cheeky-chappie roots? Maybe. This is the sound of a band finding its feet, teasing out where they fit in the scheme of things. Exchanging the bedroom at your Mam and Dad's for a smart affair in the big city and the girl from the chip shop for a model from the magazines. Weird stuff.
Dorothy is still right, though. East, west, homes best.