Let’s be honest, the early signs were not good. Recording in the Mojave desert, talk of a ‘heavier, rockier direction’, early publicity photos sporting long hair and moustaches… were Arctic Monkeys turning into The Killers circa the Sam’s Town era?
Thankfully, Humbug is not full of bluster and pomp. But it’s certainly the Arctics’ heaviest album to date, as is to be expected when Josh Homme is on board as co-producer. Homme’s presence, and the recording locations – ranging from the Californian desert to Brooklyn – have resulted in a darker, more intense listen than casual fans may be expecting.
Opening track My Propeller almost seems restrained, especially compared to previous openers such as Brianstorm and View From The Afternoon. It builds steadily and in sinister fashion, and although Alex Turner’s lyrics may have become more obtuse over time, there’s not much doubt what he’s driving at here: “One spin, and I can’t get it started on my own, when are you arriving?”
The single Crying Lightning follows, already sounding like an anthem in the making. Like the other tracks here it’s a slow-burner. Turner’s lyrics are as intriguing as ever, talking of a girl who “likes to aggravate the ice-cream man on rainy afternoons”, while Matt Helders again lays claim to be the best drummer of his generation – witness the superb moment near the end where the music drops out to be replaced by a huge, multi-tracked choir of militaristic drums.
Turner’s evolution as a lyricist continues on Humbug; there are no tales about Mardy Bums or Top Shop Princesses this time round. Instead, there’s more cryptic imagery that almost has a poetic quality to it – witness Pretty Visitors, where “all the pretty visitors waved their arms and cast the shadow of a snake pit on the wall”, or the subject of Crying Lightning who “puffs your chest out like you’ve never lost a war”.
And yes, Homme’s influence is writ large across the album. Potion Approaching is astonishing, beginning as a Queens Of The Stone Age-like jam, then expertly dropping into a voodoo-blues melody with some eerie “woo-hoo” backing vocals before exploding back to life for the last 15 seconds. Dangerous Animals, featuring more of Turner’s saucy double-entrendes (“let’s make a mess, lioness!”) could almost be an out-take from QOTSA’s Rated R, with its sledgehammer guitar riffs and intense pounding of drums.
Yet long-time collaborator James Ford, again on board as co-producer, should not be overlooked here either. As one-third of The Last Shadow Puppets, he brings more than a hint of that side-project along. Take Cornerstone, arguably the best track of the album. It’s a beautifully written story about Turner searching for a doppleganger of a lost love, with a nice ’60s pop feel to it. As with most of the tracks, here Turner employs his velvety croon from The Age Of The Understatement and it works superbly, especially on the memorable chorus of “I elongated my lift home, I let him go the wrong way round, I smelt your scent on the seatbelt”. It’s possibly the best thing the band have ever done and, if such things hadn’t been devalued by The X Factor in recent years, would be a surefire bet for a Christmas Number 1.
Secret Door too takes a cue from The Last Shadow Puppets, before diving off into a whole new level of weirdness with plenty of time shifts and Turner rapidly spitting out lyrics about getting “a reputation as a miserable little tyke”. It’s incredibly exciting, as is the exhilarating rush of Pretty Visitors, which also includes the immortal line, destined to be bellowed at festivals across the country this summer, “what came first, the chicken or the dickhead?”.
It may not be quite their finest hour – The Jeweller’s Hands isn’t as compelling a closing track as A Certain Romance or 505 were, and Fire And The Thud comes perilously close at times to a tune-free dirge – but Humbug is another intriguing step in the evolution of Britain’s most exciting guitar band.