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Advance Review: Humbug by the Arctic Monkeys

Written by: Goran Child, Special to CC2K

The Arctic Monkeys' latest release may be an acquired taste.

ImageThe idea of Sheffield-based nights-out-in-industrial-town staples Arctic Monkeys being produced by Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme should evoke, if one compares the turgid, shallow back catalogue of the former with the ambitious, scene-changing sprawl of the latter, an image akin to some actual monkeys co-produced by Josh Homme: a waste of time and effort for the latter, a vain and yet ultimately in-vain gesture by the British, hyper-Yorkshire former. Given that, and given the band’s new record, Humbug, I wonder how many of the cooler-than-thou anti-Arctics with whom I hitherto felt a kind of shared sense of snooty experience, will admit that the Monkeys’ third long-player is in many ways a quite exceptional offering.

As I write this sentence, third track ‘Dangerous Animals’ is lumbering to a psychedelic yet jugular-targeting conclusion – reminiscent of the almighty Mclusky in their prime, blasphemously enough – and one consoles oneself with the thought that many average albums have had beguiling openings before skulking onto autopilot. A relief: the following track, ‘Secret Door’, regresses into a sort of sub-Blur thin slice of nothing – with Alex Turner’s Sheffield accent almost reaching its hyper realized nadir of the three minute never-to-be-suppressed memory that is ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor’ (a sure sign of insecurity), and all is well in the world of the backslappers.

Or not, not really, because, after this dip (which proves to be a low), the remainder of the record provides sweeping druggie paranoia (‘Fire and the Thud’, featuring The Kills’ Alison Mosshart), genre-hopping sunbleached neo-stoner rock (‘Dance Little Liar’) and a line in meandering, befuddled storytelling (‘Cornerstone’) which is bound to frustrate much of the band’s quick-fix faithful.

Yet this is an album which, despite its relative brevity (just under 40 minutes), would prefer to take its time. Even a track such as ‘Pretty Visitors’, which begins with something similar to the shit-nightclub-friendliness which characterized the band’s odious debut and not-much-better sophomore effort, hastily retreats – microcosmic of the album in general – into nightmarish, hunching silhouette, preferring sludge-rock riffing to persuading arseholes with daft clothes to drink cheap lager. Its lyric, ‘What came first – the chicken or the dickhead?’ could almost be a veiled broadside at the NME-diluted demon spawn who indiscriminately sucked up their music first and second time around.

Arctic Monkeys as ‘sludge-rock riffing,’ ‘psychedelic,’ or ‘neo-stoner rock’? Mad, isn’t it? It goes without saying, as album closer ‘The Jeweller’s Hands’ clocks up almost 6-minutes with not even a fleeting odour of post-Joy Division nouveau-toss, that Josh Homme and his peers have exerted a heavy influence on Humbug. Indeed, do we treat the closing refrain’s quatrain of “If you’ve a lesson to teach me,/I’m listening, ready to learn,/There’s no one here to police me,/I’m sinking in, until you return” as an encrypted acknowledgment of Homme’s involvement in the record’s thought-process? It certainly constitutes an intriguing juxtaposition with the album’s very first lyrics (in the intoxicatingly thrusting ‘My Propeller’) of: ‘If you can summon the strength, tow me,/I can’t hold down the urgency,/You’ve got to make your descent slowly,/And oil up those sticky keys.’

Such repeated images of liberating pedagogy are tempting indeed, but perhaps it is too straightforward to attribute this newfound musical and lyrical profundity – and profound difference/différance – exclusively to Homme, but it becomes apparent that something is haunting the Arctic Monkeys on Humbug. When half the album’s songs end with the sort of studiously fucked-up guitar-work for which Homme is primarily known, and feature something approximating his characteristic brand of off-kilter semi-abstract lyricism, one begins to realize that this record, in addition to being a fine piece of work in its own right, also becomes a fascinating study in the psychology of musical genesis.

Psychoanalysis aside, the principal attraction of this album is that it articulates a band with integrity – a band who must have known they could have released an audio guide to grouting tiles and still shifted huge numbers of units, deciding to challenge themselves and perhaps reclaim some of the people who grew annoyed with their ubiquity and paths of least resistance earlier in the decade. Justifying the hype, at long last, the Arctic Monkeys have finally embraced the paradox of their name with an album that shouldn’t work, shouldn’t sell, but has – and will.