It seems like just yesterday I was doggedly resisting and then falling utterly in love with the first Arctic Monkeys album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. I believe the line, “over there/ there’s broken bones/ there’s only music/ so that there’s new ring tones” is what eventually won me over. It also seems like just yesterday that I was defending Franz Ferdinand against the charge that their latest album, Tonight, was the dreaded “More of the Same.” Like the last Franz Ferdinand effort, the third album by the Arctic Monkeys, Humbug, has seen the young Brits accused of not trying to surprise us anymore. Those are, in fact, pretty much the exact words used in the Onion A.V. Club review. I guess it’s my duty as a curmudgeonly asshole to point out that bands shouldn’t make music to try to “surprise” people – they should try to make good music. I mean, it might be surprising if, in the middle of your song, you recorded yourself taking a particularly difficult shit over a drum beat, but it wouldn’t make the song good.
And Humbug, though not as immediately indelible as their debut (which is still their best album), is pretty good. It’s not a radical shift for the Arctic Monkeys but almost no band makes a radical shift, ever. People who think London Calling is a million miles away from the first Clash record need to listen to “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” and “Police and Thieves” again. On the other hand, Tom Waits shifted from being a boozed up, cabaret pianist to being the greatest folk weirdo in the history of American music. Other than that, I can’t think of a lot of really big changes any band has made between albums. Even Radiohead, despite what the P-fork cultists tell you, has made steady and not-that-surprising progress in their sound from album to album (before anyone’s ironically retro looking sweaters come all unraveled, I’m not saying Radiohead isn’t good. They’re awesome. I’m merely pointing out that the steps between Pablo Honey and In Rainbows make sense to me.). Hang on… just thought of another big shift: Chris Cornell’s Scream is a radical departure from his usual solo mediocrity to actively and impressively sucking. My point here is that maybe we could not judge a band on how much they change between albums and judge them on whether or not the music is still good (since the Radical Shift in Sound – RSS from now on – is not always a good thing. See the above poop-taking reference for just one colorful example of why).
For Humbug, the Arctic Monkeys drafted (or he volunteered? I really don’t know) the king of the Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Homme (rhymes with “Tommy”) to produce. Mr. Rhymes-with -Tommy definitely left his mark on the record, pulling out murkier and heavier sounds than the Arctic Monkeys have made on their previous albums. Alex Turner still delivers his vocal lines with a cocky sneer (which helps when he’s delivering babble like the bulk of “Crying Lightning”, which is a catchy song with nonsensical lyrics. Note that nonsense lyrics are not necessarily a point against you – Bowie spouted nonsense through much of the 1970s and I will fight anyone who thinks Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust are anything less than genius. Including you, Glenn Beck) and Matt Helders still pounds the hell out of the drums, but Homme’s musical aesthetic is all over Humbug. Guitars squall up out of the musical murk on the slower songs and they sound a lot like they’d sound on a Queens of the Stone Age album. This is hardly a bad thing, as the Arctic Monkeys are exceedingly capable musicians and it’s nice to hear them play out a little more (the songs on Humbug tend to be around four minutes, as opposed to the previous two albums which kept everything around two or three minutes).
Humbug is, to my mind, the biggest grower album of 2009 so far. The first time I heard it, I was bored stiff. This doesn’t (obviously) guarantee that I’m going to hate an album, but it doesn’t bode well either. The curious thing is that I still wanted to listen to it after I’d been bored stiff by it. I can’t really explain that, but there was something in there that was grabbing onto me and I only just now realized (literally as I’m typing this – I had no idea how this sentence was gonna end, but now I do. Bully for me) what it is: it’s gonna sound daffy at first, but I think the Arctic Monkeys have picked up the ball that Elvis Costello mostly dropped in the early 80s (sometime after Armed Forces). Think about it: Elvis Costello was annoying, brash, and completely didn’t give a fuck for his first three glorious albums (to be sure, My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces form a mighty triumvirate). He took some of the worst excesses of the 70s, like the electronic organ, and turned them into things like “Pump it Up” and the intro to “Radio, Radio” (which is still one of the most awesome songs ever). On Humbug, the Arctic Monkeys engage in some of the habits of music’s most annoying artists – pointless tempo shifts, nonsense lyrics, and spelling in song (seriously, nothing pisses me off more than spelling words out in a song and Fergie is mostly to blame for this) – and it still comes out okay in the end. The spelling song in question is “Dangerous Animals” in which (you guessed it) Turner spells out the two titular words as if doing that somehow makes a chorus. I hated “Dangerous Animals” the first time I heard it, but now I kind of like it. Why? For the same reason I imagine a friend of mine made fun of Elvis Costello’s “Alibi” (which is not from the Holy Trinity of early Elvis albums but is on 2002’s stellar When I Was Cruel) the first time he heard it and then, about two months later, asked me to burn it onto a mixed CD for him. I don’t know if this is a British thing or not, but it seems that Elvis Costello (when he wants to) and the Arctic Monkeys share an ability to subvert the tactics and tropes of far worse musicians (not to suggest that she is a musician, but Fergie misspells “tasty” in a song about how great she is. I’m positive I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: Fergie should be locked in a room somewhere and given a crash course in the English fucking language. Or maybe she should just be locked in a room somewhere) and spin them into gold.
Humbug is probably not going to win many screaming teenagers to the Arctic Monkeys’ shows, but they may not want it to (who the fuck would?). Maybe, after all the hype that their first album received (some of it deserved), they just want NME to back the fuck up a minute and let the music speak for itself. Either way, there’s a dearth of really clever, true rock bands out there (since the Libertines are no more) and it’s nice to see the Arctic Monkeys asserting their place in the pack, especially when the rest of the U.K. seems to want to ride Franz Ferdinand’s coattails wherever they may go.