Question marks were then raised when Favourite Worst Nightmare, their follow-up to the hugely successful Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not, struggled to live up to its groundbreaking predecessor.
However, looking back, Favourite Worst Nightmare was just a stepping stone to something much bigger, and much better. For the second time in four years, critics will be falling over themselves to declare Arctic Monkeys to be the defining British band of the decade. And I’m not about to buck that particular trend.
With hindsight, the turning point for the band was when founder member Andy Nicholson grew tired of the touring schedule and the fame that came with being an Arctic Monkey before leaving the band. The band took the opportunity to replace Nicholson with a meatier and darker bass player in the shape of Nick O’Malley, and Humbug is the sound of that decision coming to fruition where on Favourite Worst Nightmare the pieces of the jigsaw were still being taken out of the box and checked, never mind being slotted together.
As usual, the more memorable songs come in the form of ballads, strange for a group quickly enforcing their reputation as Britain’s greatest current rock band. Cornerstone is the latest from the Monkeys’ production line of memorable modern love songs, telling the tale of singer and main lyricist Alex Turner’s attempts to rid himself of his obsessional mooching over an ex-girlfriend by trying to get off with similar looking ladies. He also continues his fine form of getting brilliant words into choruses with the sublime ‘elongated’. And the closing couple of lines: “she said I’m really not supposed to but yes / you can call me anything you want” are genuinely heart-rending.
Secret Door is, for the first few listens at least, superior to Cornerstone, but while Cornerstone’s appeal grows as you read and interpret the lyrics, Secret Door’s fades. Lyrically, Humbug is by far AM’s most obtuse offering yet. Many of the tracks are so wordy they are unsingalongable (yep, I just made that up), which may disappoint fans used to the terrace anthems of the first two albums. But realistically, Turner had to move away from the ‘lads-on-the-piss’ theme of his earlier musings, and besides which, musically is where Humbug really excels, despite Turner’s excellent spelling lesson on Dangerous Animals.
Much has been made of the involvement of a certain Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age, as the Monkeys strived for the rock sound that had so far eluded them. But rather than Homme taking over some of the knob-twiddling duties from Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford, the change in sound is due to the the fact that they’ve taken some time to think about what exactly they wanted to do next. Favourite Worst Nightmare was solid enough to set them up to take a brave step and Humbug is it. Even Crying Lightning, the lead single, does not shout out “HUGE HIT” – indeed its failure to break the top ten probably came as a relief to the band – but as a collection of songs, Humbug fits together far slicker than its predecessors.
It’s terrifically paced, bringing up the heat when it’s needed, and calming it down at just the right moments too. And by God does it grow on you. Humbug won’t reward you for sporadic listens, it won’t be helpful to dip in and out of, and listening on shuffle will just confuse and baffle. But Humbug takes Arctic Monkeys into the kind of territory their peers have struggled to cross into.
Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs have all stuttered with their third albums, but Humbug contains none of the doubt or hesitancy of those bands’ recent work. Arctic Monkeys are too sure of themselves, too confident of their talents, and just too damn good to make the same mistakes.Humbug may not be an obvious choice when the end of year top ten lists come up, but it does confirm Arctic Monkeys as by far the leading British band of their time.
This review was written for TMM.