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Listening to: Arctic Monkeys, Humbug

Arctic Monkeys Humbug

A review of Arctic Monkeys’ Humbug (2009)

In 2005/2006, the Arctic Monkeys were the British rock world’s most-hyped new rock ‘n’ roll sensation. Before they had ever released an album, the tornado of media opinion preceding them ensured they’d sell a vast number of their first release, and they did. This first offering was followed by diligent touring and a second album that was, by all critical accounts, possibly even better than the first.

Musically, the Monkeys played a sort of nervous New Wave/classic rock blend on their first two offerings – derived, in equal measure, from Franz Ferdinand, the Clash, the Jam and – maybe – Oasis. They were a precise band that wrote decent songs and had a healthy postmodern disregard for even the most recent rock history: they were kids in the 90s, when rock was post-rock and popular music had already entered its permanently relativist state. Their music was likable, but perhaps no more so than, say, Ash or the Subways once you stripped Arctic Monkeys of their immense media profile.

For me, their first two records lacked a certain grounding. Entertaining enough to listen to, clever in many ways, both Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not and Favourite Worst Nightmare had great tracks but, in the end, left me a little cold. Maybe in the same way that Franz Ferdinand’s weaker album tracks leave one cold.

Enter Humbug in 2009. The Monkeys have retained the services of Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age fame to produce their new album. While I’m not that closely familiar with Homme’s output overall, his music in Queens wouldn’t in any obvious way suggest that he’d be a good match for producing the nimble, light-footed, hardworking, nervy Monkeys. Queens of the Stone Age is all about lowdown, heavy grooves, growls and drones; music that has tons of bottom end.

And yet, on Humbug, something magical has happened. Homme has helped Arctic Monkeys find an anchor of gravity, has tied their music down and bolted it into the floor. While other reviewers have pointed out that this record is so much more experimental than the first two, I think the main achievement here is actually the songwriting that’s resulted from the new lower frequencies: there’s a darkness, or rather many of the tracks are darkly funny in the same way that Nick Cave or recent Morrissey is.

In fact, I was surprised by how sonically similar this CD is to Morrissey’s You Are The Quarry, 2004’s formidably rocking (and funny) comeback record.

Humbug, then, is the Arctic Monkey’s sonic coming-of-age record. It’s immensely listenable and quite brilliant, although – I suspect – it hasn’t gotten the right kind of media attention this time around because it doesn’t comply with our preconceived notions about the band, and because change is not always welcomed. I, for one, am thoroughly enjoying the darker textures, weirder lyrics and harder orientation.

Two recent Arctic Monkeys videos to round out this brief posting: the first is the single from Humbug, the second is a fabulous cover of Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand,’ released, apparently, only on the web.

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