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Track-By-Track

Arctic Monkeys Humbug Track-By-Track Album Review
Ben Hewitt , August 10th, 2009 12:51

Ben Hewitt pops The Arctic Monkeys' Humbug into his gob and gives it a suck...

'My Propeller'

A dark, sinister beast with murky smudges of guitar and a languid but insistent tempo, 'My Propeller' gets Humbug off to a flying and filthy start. It's slow and menacing atmosphere is reminiscent of some of the heavier tracks from Favourite Worst Nightmare ('If You Were There, Beware'), but relocating to the sweaty desert with Josh Homme on production duties has clearly given the Monkeys extra bite. His influence drips over the hazy sonic landscape and fuzzy guitars that have replaced the Sheffield tykes traditional clipped staccato lines, but the biggest change is in Alex Turner's voice. With his George Formby-esque Yorkshire yelp eschewed in favour of a richer, deeper timbre, his invitation to "have a spin of my propeller" sounds deliciously threatening.

'Crying Lightning'

Our Alex may have been at pains to insist that 'Crying Lightning' was a foray into uncharted territories when he claimed it was "quite strange as far as a pop song goes", but it's hard to imagine the Monkeys' hardcore fanbase not clasping this track to their hairy hearts. While it may not boast the same hormone-crazed adrenaline blast of 'I Bet You Looked Good On The Dancefloor', it more than makes up for it with a thudding bass riff and spidery guitar that leaves behind a glistening trail throughout the song. Lyrically, too, it's vintage Turner with lines such as "And my thoughts got rude, as you talked and chewed /On the last of your pick and mix". And oh, that huge, killer chorus? It couldn't get more pop if Turner donned a conical bra.

'Dangerous Animals'

An eerie little number that is as disconcerting and odd as anything the band have previously released. It starts with a haunting one line acapella that could kick start an episode of Twin Peaks if the show relocated to Yorkshire before giving way into a scampy guitar riff that owes more than a debt of gratitude to Quietus hero and electopop legend Gary Numan's classic tune 'Cars'. Turner's phonetic letter-by-letter spelling of the title track in the chorus ups the menace, as do the more opaque lyrics he chooses to employ detailing "When the acrobat fell of the beam/ She broke everyone's heart", but the band's sizeable meathead contingent can rest assured - it all builds up to a thumping classic rock climax which is more than appropriate to raise one's fist to whilst clinging on to a can of Stella in the other.

'Secret Door'

Finally, a chance to breathe after the frantic opening. The tempo is slowed down and the heavy feedback-drenched guitar is stripped away as the dark, broody rock of the opening three tracks is replaced by a much more gentle and sedate affair. While Homme's fingerprints have left detectable traces over the album up until this point, it's Turner's Last Shadow Puppets side project with Rascal Miles Kane that seems to hold the sway of influence here. A crisp shiny melody and jangling guitar is backed up by lush orchestration and swooping understated backing vocals to create a perfect facsimile of an indie James Bond anthem. The soft strains of an acoustic strum can be heard for the first time, while Turner's lyrics adopt a more lovelorn and romantic approach - a sign that Humbug is, at the very least, going to keep the listener guessing.

'Potion Approaching'

'Secret Door' was the calm before the storm of 'Potion Approaching'. A dirty glam riff dominates this slab of stoner rock that bears the most tangible signs of Homme's influence so far. The slicing peals of guitar would comfortably fit in on Songs For The Deaf or Lullabies to Paralyze, while the dirty rhythm, falsetto vocals and sporadic handclaps sounds like the cousin of 'I Wanna Make It Wit Chu' from The Desert Sessions. Turner's newfound vocal range is evident as his heavily medicated and menacing drawl takes centre stage. One of the album's real highlights.

'Fire and The Thud'

For the first time on Humbug so far, the Monkeys slightly miscue. Bland rather than offensive, 'Fire and the Thud' seems to meander aimlessly without the conviction, passion and purpose of the earlier tracks while simultaneously lacking the coquettish charm of 'Secret Door'. A guest vocal from The Kills and The Dead Weather resident shrieker Allison Mosshart is kept mercifully small, but it's still not a patch on the album's earlier tracks.

'Cornerstone'

"I wrote Cornerstone one morning, quite quickly…I saw it as a challenge to write something in a major key, but that wasn't cheesy", Mr Turner recently told Uncut magazine. While The Quietus is always in favour of musicians extending their palettes and widening their horizons, we have to implore Alex to wash his ears out, because this gives off the unmistakeable whiff of a huge stinking slab of mature stilton left in direct sunlight for 40 years. One of only two tracks for which Homme wasn't on the production duties, the conservative soft rock is a far cry from the youthful spunk they've come to be associated with, and its melody tastes far too saccharine. Whatever, it seems to have turned Turner's brain into mush, too; normally lauded for his wordplay, here he seems to borrow from Des'ree with the couplet "She was close, close enough to be your ghost /But my chances turned to toast". Particularly crumby, and feels like a poor cousin of 'Fluorescent Adolescent' but without any of the latter's acerbic with and charm.

'Dance Little Liar'

The first song to clock in at over four minutes long but without an ounce of flab on it, 'Dance Little Liar' sees the Monkeys get their groove back after the two duds. Dripping with anguish and vitriol, the bleak metallic clanging of the guitars and cold, clinical machinegun drums provide a perfect backdrop for Turner's reverb-laden vocal. Not for the first time on Humbug, the song culminates in a Queens of the Stone Age style explosive jam session. A few years ago, Turner and co would have turned a title like 'Dance Little Liar' into a tale of broken love in a sweaty provincial club, but now it's a disturbing reflection on guilt and duplicity, encapsulated by the lyric "You can never get it spotless/ When there's dirt beneath the dirt". Twisted, warped and rather delightful.

'Pretty Visitors'

A real mish-mash of a song that suffers from a more severe case of split personality disorder than the peculiar cove who dribbles and howls at the Quietus on Stoke Newington High Street. After the opening bars which sound as if they belong to a cheesy 70s Sci-Fi TV show a furious burst of drums blasts the into similar territories as those explored on Whatever People Say That I Am, That's What I'm Not: thick sludgy melody and Turner's breathless yelping. Yet halfway through, it mutates into stoner rock and a haunting choral ensemble vocal, before returning again to its previous urchin-rock roots. The Arctic Monkeys also pose a new philosophical question for the age: "What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?"

'The Jeweller's Hands'

And so the curtain closes on Arctic Monkeys MK. II, as all the successful elements of Humbug are squeezed into the six minute epic closing track - the equivalent of a marathon for the normally short and sharp Northern tykes. Musically it's haunting and claustrophobic with an unerring combination of jangling guitar and chiming orchestration floating in the background as the song slowly grows to a climax. Once again, the darker strain of romanticism running through Turner's lyrics come comes to the forefront; one of the album's most pleasing features is the refreshing evolution from songs about disco temptresses and drinking too much WKD Blue to more subtle, ethereal rhymes such as "You thought you'd never get obsessed/ You thought the wolves would be impressed/ And you're a sinking stone". The last verse is repeated three times as Humbug shudders to an end – not the brave departure we'd perhaps been led to expect, but certainly an evolution of the slower and more atmospheric tracks from Favourite Worst Nightmare.

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