Journeys Veer This Way And That
Arctic Monkeys have never been a slow-building band. The first track on an Arctic Monkeys album sounds as though the group started playing a few lines before the engineer even had a chance to hit 'record'. Nor have they been known to slow down and take it easy. In four years they've released three albums, two EPs, and seven singles. Even their sales are notoriously swift; their 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not was the fastest-selling album in British history, breaking a record set by The Beatles by pushing just under 120,000 copies in a single day. Musically, they're fast, tight, occasionally melodic, and always bombastic, almost to a fault.
How fitting then that the band's third album, Humbug, is, against all expectations, slower, dirtier, looser, and, one might say, sultrier. Likely due to singer Alex Turner's affinity for Jimi Hendrix and Cream, the Monkeys have returned with a classic understanding of the guitar rock swagger that has carried through every generation of popular music for the past five decades. Another trend that can be traced to Turner's musical tastes, the band appears to have been washed in the runoff of the singer's most recent side project, Last Shadow Puppets, whose songs each sound like they would fit in perfectly as the theme to a Bond movie. Many of the tracks slide smoothly from a challenge to a come on, soaked in the musk of danger and possibility. It takes a certain confidence to be so daring, and this band seems to have it in spades.
But of course, this is still audibly Arctic Monkeys, and the key elements are all in place. Turner's voice, though smoothed a little with what growth one can accomplish in four years and often dropped into an almost unrecognizable lower register, is still sharp, his native English accent sneering through every word and making plain that he will do what he wants no matter what anyone thinks of him. Bassist Nick O'Malley and guitarist Jamie Cook are given more of a chance than ever to shine, taking the groups signature sped-up alt-punk and smudging it, muddying the chords and squeezing out careful yet powerful solos. Best of all, drummer Matt Helders, one of the great unsung masters of this oft-ignored instrument, is still able to take a song and make it vibrant through a simple application of bass, snare, and hi-hat.
Still, Humbug is hardly what we're used to from this young band. Known for injecting heavy doses of punk and personal experience into otherwise straightforward rock tunes, much like the Strokes have done in the U.S., it's as though they've seen the light of an entirely new era. The sunny and lovesick "Cornerstone" is more Summer of Love than The Year in Hell, as Turner tries, unsuccessfully, to find a woman who will meet his approximation of the one who got away. Only two songs away, "Pretty Visitors", after a lilting organ opening, jumps into a tongue-in-cheek punk shouting fest straight out of the Sex Pistols and CBGB's. After that, it's a grunge stomp, which makes much more sense when you realize that the album was recorded by Queens of the Stone Age front man Josh Homme, some of it in the heart of the Mojave Desert.
Barren locales aside, clearly Arctic Monkeys have moved to a new sphere of musical appreciation. The barely-sung lyrical stories are still there, but we're no longer given tales of young lawbreakers and dance floors. Rather, we get relationships gone sour, bitterness unbidden and justified. Backup vocals are still present, but gone are the gangs of young men straining to be heard and understood in a world where the deified youth are represented by the dimmest and ruled by the cruelest. In their place, we get wafting "oohs" and "aahs", as on the captivating "Fire and the Thud". There is a pall over the album, a general unease that is only broken when a song is released into its full potential, which almost all of them are. It's artfully done, though it's hard to say whether this new direction is taking the band somewhere worth going, or whether we're just speeding through a detour towards the riot that's been in progress for the last four years.