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Arctic Monkeys
Humbug Stephen Burkett , August 24th, 2009 16:43

Arctic Monkeys: ciphers of the internet age, avatars of cool – names to be dropped by politicians who think saluting their existence is more important than not being chronically inept. The voice of a generation, the shocking nuclear annihilation heralding the end of the music industry as we know it; four young men standing at the gateway to a brave new world. Fashion icons – have you seen Alex’s new hair? – but not yet gossip rag fodder, a rainbow road of dreams for all the forgotten rock stars who were unlucky enough to be born in Grimethorpe or Kendal or Belper and not Camden fucking Town.

And now, with Humbug, a fine band to be treasured if not fully understood. Because this third album is a baffling kaleidoscope of ideas, some half-formed and some half-baked, but all fully trusted to put their pursuers off the scent – hell, if Pavement grew up in Sheffield they’d probably come up with something not a million miles from this record: that’s how good it is. This album’s been brewing since they put out Who The Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys? because it shows not how contrary or wilfully oblique they are, but because they are four guys who’ve been mates for a long time who are still all very, very young. Hands up everyone reading this who’s between 18 and 29. Right, now, hands down if you’re thoroughly comfortable with who you are, or even if you think you have the vaguest conception of that vaguest of ideas: most of you? Now, factor in becoming wildly, almost unfairly famous before you hit 20 and being given the keys to a life you never ever asked for – it’s testament to their intelligence that Arctic Monkeys still, despite the best efforts of some, remain private. You try keeping your phone switched off when everyone in the civilised world, and P Diddy, wants to tell you what a genius you are.

Thank fuck Alex Turner picked up the phone when Josh Homme rang, because his input and the freedom he gave the band is exactly what’s liberated them and allowed them to become what they are today. Practically gone are the chiming melodies so patronisingly dubbed terrace anthems by broadsheet journalists, instead replaced with meandering but ever-barbed structures that alternately swoon with dark romance, as on 'Cornerstone', or, as on 'Jeweller’s Hands' and 'Potion Approaching' glint like a knife in the moonlight. Instead, there’s an expansive sleaziness to the guitars, all bent notes that come at you from seven different directions rather than the let’s-get-to-the-finish-line-first directness of their previous albums. 'Secret Door' in particular is a gorgeous little ditty, all classic harmonies that are suddenly thumped into submission by a bouncing-bomb of percussion.

'Potion Approaching', with its squealing guitars and staccato scattered lyrics could have sat flush on Songs For The Deaf were it not for Turner’s delivery, which turns the laconic into the menacing with a sneered put-down or two. And just when it should, by rights, slide out of view it mutates into some desert session of hazed guitar and mystic campfire “woo woo!”s that sound like the musical equivalent of taking peyote. Frankly, it’s unimaginable that it would fit on any Monkeys record but this, as with the backwards guitar howls on 'Cornerstone', made all the weirder by the way the psyched-out bits melt into normalcy without really signalling their departure from Weirdsville, and that’s why it feels so brilliantly natural. It’s not like Humbug sounds bang-on like a QOTSA record sung by Turner, more like Homme being able to engender the same sense of ‘fuck it dude, see what this sounds like’ that made Queens’ early records so sonically plump and pleasing. When the faithful question why there aren’t any songs about queuing for the cloakroom or some such town-centre bollocks drudgery the only sane response is ‘because when you’re on peyote in the desert no one’s got a fucking coat’.

The other major influence named is Nick Cave – rather a leap, it would seem, from the say-what-you-see (however cleverly) observations the Monkeys are known for. But on 'Fire And The Thud' and 'Dance Little Liar', not so much in specific terms of the baroque, ornate pop but in the inky fingerprints of Cave’s darkness, the citation appears just. And in the apparent blankness of the lyrics; initially both impenetrable and gibberish, Turners words are somehow alchemised into being brightly evocative, whether by virtue of the atypical song structures or the teasing hum of the Homme-inflected music. There’ll be little flourishes that are easy to grasp that will probably come to light – “Which came first: the chicken or the dick’ead?” and Turner spelling out the title of 'Dangerous Animals' – but the little sparks of colour in 'Cornerstone' call to mind Martin Amis of all people.

Humbug is far more than simply a good record; it’s an achievement, a surprise and an enduring triumph. More than anything it suggests Arctic Monkeys not only will be around for years (was that ever really in doubt?!) but they could grow to be as nourishing as any band of the last five years. You like Pavement, right? And Martin Amis? And Nick Cave? And Queens Of... oh, just buy the fucking record.

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