Out of the desert comes a challenging third album. See yer later, casual fans
You do wonder whether, in their treehouse, the Arctic Monkeys haven’t got a copy of the lyrics to ‘Who The Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?’ pasted to the wall, with the important bits circled. Never were truer words spoken in drawl: “Stick to the guns. Don’t care if it’s marketing suicide…”
So, as they Montgolfier off on the magical balloon ride that is ‘Humbug’, over the side they chuck about half of the fanbase who filled Old Trafford like so many sandbags. Goodbye proper-tunes people! This is not for you.
It’s not unexpected. What could a band with such a massive fanbase possibly want in life? A smaller, more discerning fanbase, of course. Seasoned Monkeys-watchers have been waiting for their balls to fully descend for a while now, and these songs are pretty much what you’d expect if you put a bunch of gaga QOTSA fanboys in a room with their idol – a grinding peyote-trip of desert rock. And, like any good peyote trip, ‘Humbug’ can often feel sticky, claustrophobic, like your heart is going to explode and about a week long. Which isn’t to say it’s not often brilliant. Just that ‘Humbug’ extends ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’’s trend for being squat and muscular right up to the border of brutishness.
They’ve always had a clever way of retooling rock clichés – their songs seldom start or end where they were supposed to. On ‘Humbug’, generally, when the words run out, the song ends – as if they’re now so no-compromise that proper segues would just be pandering. Structures are topsy-turvy, often intriguingly. It takes a few listens to figure out just why ‘Secret Door’ feels so unsettled before noticing that the sequence is chorus, verse, bridge, verse, bridge, chorus, chorus. For all its righteous fury, there are moments when they don’t find that extra gear, and the trade-off between texture and songwriting unbalances in their haste to zag away into the future.
Band album it may be, but only the snarling cipher of Alex Turner can ever truly star in this show. Over ‘My Propeller’s uncoiling high-wire riff, his opening line falls light as a feather. “If you can summon the strength”, then a pause – an elegant, brilliantly theatrical, pause, “tell me”. If Miles Davis is all about the ‘spaces in between the notes’, then Turner is now mastering the spaces between the words. His delivery has become super-sentient; the twists and turns of his lips are immaculate.
Underwhelming when it first landed, repetition allows ‘Crying Lightning’s knotty chorus to finally twine itself around the mind. The heavier-than-hell ‘Potion Approaching’ gives way to the grind of ‘Fire And The Thud’ and ‘Dance Little Liar’, the sweaty torpor only lifting for the Ford-produced standout ‘Cornerstone’ before the sonic heat finds its apex in the nonsense-poetry strafe attack of ‘Pretty Visitors’.
Here is the wake-up call for everyone who assumed in 2006 that Alex Turner was some sort of People’s Poet. He’s a poet alright, but rather than pour himself into his art like a latter-day Morrissey, he seems to have spent the intervening years stepping away from himself. So the first-personal vignettes of jackpots-from-fruit machines that made way for the third-person observations of sex-starved housewives have in turn been shunted aside for a perspective so loose its practically cubist. “We embellished the banks of our bloodstreams, and threw caution to the colourful”. Que? ‘Humbug’ confirms his genius, but in a way that’s often more abstract than moving. In the world’s oldest critical get-out clause, it’s a grower. One for the fans. Brave. Challenging. And all the other clichés that suggest that the Monkeys have reached the point where the people who love them a lot will clutch them even closer to their hearts, and the people who kinda liked ’em will be wondering who the fuck they are in five years’ time.
If ‘My Propeller’ was the foreboding opening overture, then ‘The Jeweller’s Hand’ is its fellow bookend. The trip is over. But rather than the veil of madness lifting, we follow the piper’s tune over the hills into Mad Land. “A procession of pioneers” proffers Turner, pausing again mid-sentence with priestly authority as the ground gives way beneath us, “all drowned”. Well, of course they did, you cynical bastards. No-one gets out alive in the Arctics’ world. They’re fatalistic, smirking sceptics who’ll never, ever take the soft option. They’re exactly the sort of rock’n’roll band you shouldn’t put your life in the hands of. And that’s exactly why you should love them even more.