For a little while there, you couldn’t mention the name “Arctic Monkeys” without being doused with the excited spittle of a million critics, all of whom would try with the zeal of a hundred William Wallaces to convince you that not only were the Monkeys the best British band since the Beatles, but also had made one of the greatest British records ever. EVER. There wasn’t a indie music blogger who wasn’t heaping praises, Virgin radio could have been renamed “Arctic Monkeys Radio”, and NME even went so far as to call their debut record, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the “5th greatest British album of all time.” ALL TIME.
This sort of hype can’t exist scientifically, however, without some sort of equal and opposite reaction, and that was evident both in the collective shoulder shrug of American audiences and the angry British listeners who thought the Monkeys praise was completely unfounded. As a result their second album became a polarizing sticking point, and the hoopla began to slowly fizzle out.
So now, the “love-em-or-hate-em” effect is in full force for their third effort, Humbug, which all things considered is really a shame. Front man Alex Turner’s got musical chops to spare, and the fussy, ebullient songs on the Monkeys first two albums really did him no favors. It was his energy, primarily, rather than his talent that was really on parade. And in fact, he showed a lot more of that prowess on the side project “The Last of the Shadow Puppets” than on anything the Monkeys had done. Until now.
Humbug is more melodic and polished than anything else in the short Arctic Monkeys’ catalog. Right out of the gate, “My Propeller” gallops forward with a Mission: Impossible-esque guitar line and Turner’s subdued vocals sounding much more new wave than punk. It creeps along with a Morrissey-like precision, only occasionally coming up for air with a blast of trademark Monkeys’ rock. This song clearly owes more to the faux-western Shadow Puppets’ sound than Arctic Monkeys, but it works completely in full rock band setting.
It’s here where Humbug separates itself from the older albums; most of the songs are about ten to twenty beats per minute slower, the music feels more carefully thought out, and there’s even room for some clever word play replacing the shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality of the past. It doesn’t have the kind of individual strengths that made “Mardy Bum” or “When The Sun Goes Down” such memorable songs, but the effort is consistent and makes the whole a lot more satisfying.
Of course, Humbug will never be considered the greatest of the Monkeys’ albums, and it won’t come close to being the most historic. But it does give Turner and co. a chance to hit the proverbial reset button and let the people who understandably rebelled against their supernatural hype come into their world. There’s a humanity here, a social realism, that was grossly overshadowed if not non-existent before. The honesty shines through: “She was close/Close enough to be your ghost/But my chances turned to toast/When I asked her if/I could call her yr name”. Hardly the words of a band who thinks it’s better than the Beatles.