Ruth's Manuvas


My musical ramblings – gig and album reviews, music news and views

Arctic Monkeys ‘Humbug’ – album review

Arctic Monkeys - Humbug


Asking Queens of the Stone Age front man, Josh Homme to produce ‘Humbug’ was never going to result in a record which blended seamlessly into the other two albums rather like part three of a trilogy. 

Whether or not listeners knew the identity of the main producer before they first heard the album, on its inaugural outing, the Arctics Monkeys’ third offering does sound like a concoction of The Last Shadow Puppets and Queens of the Stone Age, together with elements of their old selves all rolled into one. And it is with this immediate judgement that anyone could be forgiven for believing that ‘Humbug’ does to the ears what drinking a cup of tea with ever-so-slightly off milk does to the mouth. It looks ok, but it doesn’t taste right.

Gone are the Sheffield tales of views from the afternoon, riot vans and stories of going back to 505 and largely removed are the raw, whirlwind tunes played and sung/talked at high speed. Instead, in their place comes an eerie, mostly mid tempo album in which the band take a necessary risk with their diehard fans, for the sake of an altogether more mature direction.

Look at the facts – five years on the northern upstarts have grown into hugely talented musicians and can no longer make albums about the old times, nor dwell on them to keep up a song writing guise. Things have changed. Alex now lives in New York separate from Nick O’Malley, Matt Helders and Jamie Cook and if we’re all honest, everyone including the critics would’ve called their third record stagnant and predictable had they come up with a ‘Whatever you say I am, I’m your favourite worst nightmare’ amalgamation. 

The QOTSA front man set the tone for the Arctics’ new direction when he declared, “If you can wear a cable-knit you can put a glockenspiel on a tune” to Turner.   With that, ‘Humbug’ is more considered and grizzly – a shadow of the former whippersnapper lines which make way for a sultry, slower sound with darker subject matter on the traps and temptations of women and life beyond Sheffield.

Even the recording location was at odds with past experience and instead of sticking to city studios where the lads could pop to the pub in between their parts, it saw them all travel to California to make much of the album with first-time producer, Josh Homme. The rest was put together with Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford in Brooklyn.

By the time the third listen has been and gone the album becomes spellbindingly impressive. The opener, ‘Propeller’, feels like an intro for what is to come and has tinges of haunting QOTSA-esque vocals, lines which scream of the double entendre, but with recognisable Arctics’ style snarling guitar riffs. 

‘Crying Lightning’ is a classic grower and the more you listen, the more you realise Turner hasn’t left behind his storytelling roots, nor has the rest of the band completely wallpapered over their musical footprints. It does actually sound faintly like some of their older tracks and follows the same formula as one such as ‘Do me a favour’, starting softly and building to a crescendo. Only this time around the boys have tweaked and honed their instruments to perfection and sound so polished no doubt even they may be startled by the reflection of the band they have become.
The second track, ‘Dangerous Animals’ is a menacing tale about the perils of the fairer sex and turns into a barnstormer with drummer, Matt Helder showing how brilliant he is.

Throughout ‘Humbug’ even the slower tunes like ‘Secret Door’ and ‘Cornerstone’ slot in to their very appropriate places on the album, as does Alex Turner’s more tuneful croon which he himself has admitted is largely down to his The Last Shadow Puppets project with The Rascals’ frontman, Miles Kane. The grace and grandeur of ‘The Age of the Understatement’ is a clear influence on the melancholic melodies, echo-laden guitars and musical depth of the softer parts of the album. 

‘Potion Approaching’ and ‘Pretty Visitors’ are the most comparable inclusions to the old Arctic Monkeys, with breakneck drums, tongue twisting verses and wry-smile inducing lines such as, ‘What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?’ 

Much of the album feels like a clash between an army’s frontline of galloping horses and a freakish fairground, with some quieter breaks in between. That helter skelter, carousel fairground ride feel is none more so notable than on ‘Dance Little Liar’ where the hook goes up and down mesmerisingly throughout the track’s entirety. 

Everything draws to a close with ‘The Jeweller’s Hands’ – a track stuffed full of perilous pianos, guitars and glockenspiel chimes, which is far from an afterthought placed on the album simply to bulk out the minutes.   

‘Humbug’ doesn’t provide an instant indie hit like ‘Whatever you say I am’, or ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’. Not only does it need a few listens and some time investing in it to be able to see just how good it really is, but it also takes some shedding of preconceptions about what the band previously sounded like.

Perhaps they have been victims of their own success, as the formula they created on the first two albums was so successful it made fans crave more of the same – after all, people generally don’t like change at first because it feels wrong and unfamiliar.

And just as Paul Epworth’s and Timberlake’s signature is audible on the albums they have produced, the distinctive QOTSA frontman’s influence was always going to be transparent on the Arctic Monkeys’ new material, and the album is all the better for his musical wizardry. 

There are no ‘505’-esque spine tinglers on ‘Humbug’, but that’s not to take away the fact of the matter – this is a sublime third album. It is the record many a band should be producing by the time they reach this point in their careers, instead of blithely diving into the mainstream or playing it safe instead of challenging and developing their sound.  Humbug shows growth and maturity and an essential recognition by the Arctics that no band gets into the legendary books by turning out the same album, re-hashed, three times.

Those boys have been practising.


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2 Responses

  1. ntisyadi says:

    this is very thorough . great review !

    i couldn agree more , the album really smack my head . they really taking the risk on this one . blody briliant

    • ruthsmanuvas says:

      Thanks! Feels like ages now since they released it and I’ve gotta be honest I don’t actually listen to it as much as I thought I would, but I still think it’s a touch of brilliance 🙂

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