Arctic Monkeys, 'Humbug' (Domino)

6
Humbug
Critical Mass
Label: Domino

by Sean Fennessey

Oh, the predictable life of a Britrock sensation. Your debut is assured legendary status (for at least a year). You'll be feted for dissecting, celebrating, and sneering at the lives of common people. Your follow-up will be more "challenging" but won't abandon your roots. You'll date famous, beautiful, unconventional women. Your third album, though, will push, probably too hard, for the thrill of the new. Such is the arc of Arctic Monkeys, who take a decidedly different direction on Humbug and rarely settle into it comfortably.

Catapulted from obscurity to Internet insta-success in 2006, the barely post-teen quartet squealed and kicked onto the scene with jagged, ramshackle guitar rock and devilishly detailed observations about youth's distrust of, and distaste for, those not quite down. "All you people are vampires!" frontman Alex Turner howled on their debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, which went to No. 1 in the U.K. and was later hyperbolically named the fifth-best British album ever in an NME poll. The Monkeys were believably cynical, irresistibly literate lads, and their second album, 2007's Favourite Worst Nightmare, didn't stray far from the first, save some added instrumental heft.

But for Humbug, the band teams with an unlikely sage: Queens of the Stone Age boss Josh Homme, who produced half of the album (Nightmare's James Ford handles the rest). It's an intriguing match, since Homme's own band boasts a masculine, manic swing that Arctic Monkeys clearly lack. Homme is a man, and QOTSA are a desert band, while the boyish Monkeys are pasty and pimply, prone to the occasional fit of whiny discomfort. So Humbug's leadoff track, the languid come-on "My Propeller," is a pleasant surprise. "Coax me out, my low, and have a spin on my propeller," Turner moans a little creepily, like a Nick Cave in training. Throughout, he shelves his frantic yelp in favor of the burlier croon he flexed for last year's orchestral-pop side project the Last Shadow Puppets.

The loungey "Fire and the Thud" finds Turner in full-blown seduction mode: "You showed me my tomorrow beside a box of matches." He's still interested in the allure of words, but his lyrics have become more oblique, less cuttingly personal. He's not condescending to chavs under his breath or flipping off barrel-chested bouncers at Sheffield clubs. Turner is going for something more louche than that. But at times, his vocals -- once the Monkeys' heartbeat -- are buried under the sonic rumble. Reportedly, the band listened to lots of Hendrix and Cream while recording with Homme in the Mojave Desert's remote Joshua Tree area, and there is more mood (and keyboards) here than ever before. The band's oft-mentioned hip-hop influence is nowhere to be found. There's a downtempo, almost suffocating tonality to the songs. Jamie Cook's guitar is drenched in pedal effects and reverb. This is oval-shaped music, circling around the tracks; it's accomplished, but not particularly infectious.

There are fleeting moments of the old Monkeys, like "Cornerstone," on which Turner, in recovery after a split, is so crushed -- and unashamed -- that he repeatedly asks a potential new mate, "Can I call you her name?" That's the guy we know: distressed but self-deprecating, hardened but hearty. Turner's momentary return to timidity is the least predictable thing about Humbug. Stay tuned for their back-to-basics fourth album.

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