The Arctic Monkeys grew their hair and enlisted the ear (and heavier bass lines and guitar squeals) of Josh Homme for their third album Humbug. In interviews, they’ve mentioned the influence of Black Sabbath on the collection and said they listened to Hendrix and Cream while they recorded it. The brooding, sexy, minor-key “My Propeller” offered a darker, more mature sound and first single “Crying Lightning” teased with sludgy psychedelia. Those are also literally the first two tracks out of the collection’s ten, so the big question is whether or not the Monkeys maintain that incense-burning/black-arts digging vibe all the way through.
It surely seems like it when listening to track three, “Dangerous Animals,” a bottled-up and then mildly explosive burner that gives us crunchy fuzz guitar, a repeating underwater gong sound, and a bona fide S&M storyline: “Sharpen the heel of your boot / And you press it to my chest and you make me wheeze / And to my knees you do promote me.” Humbug’s 39 minutes are filled with plenty of this sort of come on. We’re not necessarily talking Velvet Underground bleakness, but Alex Turner is clearly pushing his pen deeper into his notepad. One of his best lines shows up in the almost balladic “Cornerstone”: “I thought I saw you in the battleship / but it was only a lookalike… / … She was close, close enough to be your ghost / But my chances turned to toast when I asked her if I could call her your name.” By the song’s end, because this is the world of Humbug, he’s being told “yes, you can call my anything you want” by his ex’s (or whomever’s) sister.
The Humbug atmosphere’s made up of broken arms, sweaty walls, scratched varnish, irritating embraces, snake pit shadows, wolves, obsession, seat belts that smell like your lady, distracting mirrors. There are questions: “What came first the chicken or the dickhead?” But mostly there are declarations about dirt, danger, lust. A song like “Secret Door” opens with a pastoral feel until Turner starts singing about “fools on parade” and we realize it’s not going to be so feel-good. (Nothing here is feelgood.) A few moments later the track opens to a mid-tempo rocker depicting a phantasmagorical dance. Many of the songs feature this carnival-esque feel via murky, somber under-layers.
Humbug sticks doggedly to a tense but seductive pace. It can feel sludgy, though the intricate details are usually pristine. “Dance Little Liar” opens with an echoing phase before a few rolling beats from the drum introduce a gothy (or at least Victorian) late-night vibe. The biggest rocker, “Pretty Visitors,” opens with spooky organs and then kicks into high-gear — great drum rolls and herky jerky dynamics — before slowing into a creepy, droning chant. Before the track’s close (head to about the 2-minute mark) the guitars are upped and you finally hear a moment that wouldn’t blush from a Sabbath comparison.
For the most part the ominous makeover works — and the layered production keeps you listening closely — but on the soulful “Fire And The Thud,” complete with backup singers, you might find yourself thinking that, yeah, at times the album does thud a bit. That said, they’re unrelenting about it, carrying out the switchup all the way through to the elegantly dark and almost Doors-like closer, “The Jeweller’s Hands.”
Arctic Monkeys are maturing, exploring different textures and emotions, and the result is an album that requires close and careful listening. It’s an enjoyable attitude adjustment that we’ve only just started digging into, but judging from the nuances we find on second and third and fourth listens, like the band, it should keep on growing.