Andrew Seroff | Friday, September 4, 2009
The Arctic Monkeys have always radiated a casual vibe, through the butter-smooth slurs of Alex Turner, the under-produced album covers and the sparse concert stages. These elements allow the band to succeed at such a wide range of intensity – from the groovy mellow “Riot Van” and “505,” to the explosive dance rock of “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor.” Their third studio album, “Humbug,” is no exception.
The Arctic Monkeys, who enjoyed sell-out crowds in their native England in the early 2000s, soared onto the global indie music scene in 2005 when they signed to Domino Records, an independent British record label best known in the states for signing Franz Ferdinand a few years before. Their debut and sophomore albums broke UK record sales, going quadruple and double platinum, respectively.
While “Humbug” is still the Arctic Monkeys we’ve come to know and love, differences from its predecessors are apparent. For one, it is the first full album recorded without their original bassist, Andy Nicholson. Also, it was completely recorded in the United States with work done in Los Angeles, New York and the Rancho de la Luna Studio deep in the Mojave Desert.
For whatever reason, “Humbug” is the misfit third child of the Arctic Monkeys family. It doesn’t have the novelty and catchiness of “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” nor the intensity and unruliness of “Favourite Worst Nightmare.” It is a creature all of its own, composed of less rhythmic and lyrical variety, but more exploration into the timbre and orchestration of their sound.
The first single, “Crying Lightning,” is the staple of normalcy in the album. It starts with a quintessential Arctic Monkeys construction: stacking a bass riff and drum beat, then two sparse, intertwining guitar loops. When Turner comes in for the verse, however, we’re left with a slow, uninteresting vocal line on top of the repeating rhythm section. Luckily, Turner makes even the most underwhelming lines sound good. The pre-chorus picks it up a little, and escalates well into the chorus. The whole song progresses well, breaking down for a short guitar solo and a brief a cappella verse. It’s no “A Certain Romance,” but “Crying Lightning” is a well-built song that satisfies the needs of the fan.
Where the album struggles is breaking out of the 80 beats per minute, droning power rock. While the preceding albums had a good spread of rhythmic variety, “Humbug” delivers 10 tracks of continuous thumping. Which isn’t to say they’re 10 identical, bland tracks – they just contain the obvious similarity of pulse. While I wouldn’t call this album the “Sergeant Pepper’s” of the Arctic Monkeys, it is successful in its exploration of the harmonic and instrumental depth of a rock quartet such as themselves.
The track that best exhibits this newfound depth is “Secret Door.” It begins with a striking riff that sounds like an accordion at a café under the Eiffel Tower. Turner tastefully sings over the lightly strumming guitar – his voice ringing with a gentle, reflective quality. As the beat picks up while maintaining the first motif, Turner’s line bounces between reckless slurring and the dainty narration of the beginning. The keys and guitar are along for the same ride, escalating to match the alternating articulate and declaratory themes, eventually building to a significant climax without breaking stride.
Initially, “Humbug,” was disappointing. After hoping for an album even better than the last two, it’s easy to nitpick. Upon further review, it has a lot to offer the Arctic Monkeys connoisseur. However, if someone who had never heard of the Arctic Monkeys before wanted a track recommendation, it wouldn’t be any of these.