It’s safe to say that Arctic Monkeys were viral before viral. Before they were titans, the young band’s popularity was rocket-strapped by Myspace and file-sharing websites, amassing a solid and dedicated fan base without releasing a single. The time came around though, and ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ put a lot of people on one, losing their minds to a top indie-rock guitar riff of the era. Both the single and its accompanying album ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ were number one smashes in their respective charts, and this success would see the Arctic Monkeys headline Glastonbury inside 18 months after the latter was released.
They didn’t need the radio play, the mainstream publicity, the hype (don’t believe it)… they were a made name already. They did, however, get it anyway; the UK scene was pretty quickly their playground.
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This (for the time) very unconventional path to superstardom should have proved then and there that this was a band willing to evolve and move with the times. Retroactively, it’s very easy to note the metamorphosis of the Arctic Monkeys. However, this wasn’t always so bold. The first two albums, although different, shared a significant section of the Venn diagram you’d label their ‘sound’; the real and relatable vernacular, the quasi-punk guitar stylings and the endless catchy choruses. Third full-length Humbug would bear less of a resemblance.
Those cheeky lads from High Green squawking about taxi ranks and grim nights out were done for. Wearing their faces, were a much more mature and focused unit, with a stronger sense of direction when creating atmospheres and tonal palettes. They’d moved on. In fact, they’d moved to the other side of the world.
Alex Turner (to NME) once described the band’s fifth smash record ‘AM’ as “a Dr Dre beat with a bowlcut, galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster”. If that’s the case, then Humbug is a lost QoTSA single dressed in denim; fanatic about late-era Beatles and often found sulking in art galleries. So, enough talking, let’s jump into ‘that full moon music’…
“Coax me out my low, sink into tomorrow”
‘My Propeller’ is a moody plea to bring a symbiotic nature back to a faltered relationship. It really does the job required of a strong opener, and sets the table for what’s to come both in aesthetic and lyrical content, with much of this album pertaining to feelings of disconnection and despondency in love. The space made in the intro for that murky, stalking riff is golden.
Next up is the trudging fuzz of ‘Crying Lightning’, a cut that forces you to sit in the pictures painted along the way. Setting is very important to Humbug; it’s the main way the narratives stay grounded, in the moments Alex spins off into his own head. I’m more than happy to entertain “the café by the cracker factory”, if it helps our narrator on the right path to an explanation when judgements are clouded and things get strange.
By the time we show up at ‘Secret Door’, much gentler in its approach, that crutch has become more than evident. The object of affection “swam out of tonight’s phantasm”, showing a necessary level of self-awareness to the chaos. The “fools on parade” refrain sways, and offers respite for the time being; park yourself in the blissful ignorance and tune out for a while, won’t you?
There’s a slight return to the kitchen-sink drama charm of the first record come yearning open-mic-favourite ‘Cornerstone’; where Alex recalls projecting the face of his former flame onto strangers, in a stretch of wishful thinking. “I smelt your scent on a seatbelt, and kept my shortcuts to myself” is a perfect peek into the mindset of a desperate jilted lover (and one of my favourite lines in the catalogue).
“I heard the truth was built to bend”. The essential scumbag ballad ‘Dance Little Liar’ croons into your ears with a sliver of unease. Showcasing the album’s tightest writing, the instrumentation behind it wallows for the most part, until the spotlight’s demanded for Turner and lead guitarist Jamie Cook to battle it out on the solo.
Lyrics fire right out of the gate of ‘Pretty Visitors’ with shotgun speed. All that time spent around in California with Josh Homme has certainly rubbed off on the group, as the guitar-line wouldn’t go astray on ‘Songs for the Deaf’. Turner paints a frantic and surrealist picture, almost a stream of consciousness, before being forcefully subdued into the hook by ‘Agile Beast’ Matt Helders, thrashing hypnotic drum-rolls all over the build up.
“What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?”
Humbug is their ‘catalyst album’. Without it, the journey through the band’s timeline wouldn’t make much sense. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that saying that is a bit odd; bands do not tend to have a linearity to their creative decision-making. Arctic Monkeys, however, have always foreshadowed what was coming. If you listen to the B-sides of the albums’ predecessor ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, you’d find way more than you think there that would feel right at home on Humbug. In turn, there’s a few (not many, but a few) tracks on follow-up Suck It And See that could’ve been extrapolated from here (‘Library Pictures’ and ‘All My Own Stunts’ immediately jump to mind). It’s funny, what I said earlier about the Venn diagram should’ve been a dead giveaway for how the four-piece would operate near-enough always. Incorporate something new, soften the edge with the amiable. It works.
The album serves as the crucial experiment in the discography, the one set most further afield, but it isn’t all style and no substance. There’s such a proud identity to this release and it couldn’t work without it. Had it been a half-baked, unconvincing go at something the group weren’t really into, we’d be remembering their later work in a different light too. Totally embracing the move away from punch-your-guitar garage rock, or endearing little ditties about working class life without abandoning why they worked in the first place was absolutely the move… and job done. There are new contrasts at play. Humbug is a dynamic and confident record, with every faith in you as the listener to plumb the depths along with it, and I couldn’t recommend more that you do.