Arctic Monkeys arrived on the UK music scene as something of a watershed, it seemed to me: everyone who liked a certain type of British music could agree, in the poppy hiatus between the salad days of Britpop and the re-emergence of UK guitar music that the charts were awful. But with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, it felt to me at the time, four spotty chaps from Sheffield peeled off one half of those fans from the other: those who didn’t like the Monkeys’ debut album stayed at home with their Gene and Suede albums; the rest moved on.
The band has come a long way since that callow inauguration. Not only did My Favourite Nightmare complicate and darken the band’s sound; lead singer and lyricst Alex Turner’s side project, The Last Shadow Puppets, revealed a far richer sonic palette than he had previously betrayed. For the record, I’m a big fan both of Turner’s lyrics and voice, and consider him quite the finest English exponent of either art of this decade. So I was predisposed to enjoy Humbug, released yesterday and Turner’s third album with Arctic Monkeys. I became very fond of The Age of the Understatement, but am not disappointed that the soaring string and retro pastiches of that album find no home with Turner’s main project; Humbug is again another development, neither forced nor poorer than what came before it.
The lyrics still impress – “[You] stood and puffed your chest out like you’d never lost a war” or “I smelt your scent on the seatbelt and kept my shortcuts to myself” are the sorts of turn of phrase with which songwriters pray to leave a listener – but, crucially, so too do the tunes. Arctic Monkeys have always offered angular not-quite-melodies, and the reliance of the chants here assembled on the counter-riffs which play beneath them remains. With Queens of the Stone Age’s Joshua Homme on production duties for the bulk of the record, it’s no surprise that these riffs are beefier than ever. What is surprising, though, is how the band has retained the straight-ahead pop song rubric: this album sounds more mature, for sure, but that isn’t at the price of accessibility.
Indeed, as good as it is, current single ‘Crying Lightning’ might be one of the least convincing songs on the record: catchy, yes, but with the sort of lyrics Turner isn’t otherwise writing anymore. Much of Humbug eschews the laconic kitchen sink stuff with which he made his name. This is A Good Thing, given that he now lives in New York with Alexa Chung. So the album refuses, except for that one moment, to hanker for past glories: ‘Secret Door’ is expansive and wry about high society, ‘Fire and the Thud’ a love song both tender and sinister, ‘The Jeweller’s Hands’ mysterious and rolling, the poetry quite divorced from the specifity of a song like ‘Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But’. In short, here is an album worth listening to: recognisably of an oeuvre, but so commendably uninterested in retreading old ground that the Arctic Monkeys feel new all over again.