It must be said: The first thing that springs to mind from the opening bars of “My Propeller,” the first cut off the Arctic Monkeys’ latest effort, Humbug, is the unmistakably sleazy gutter-croon of Josh Homme. This noticeable trend, in fact, continues over the course of the entire record, with Queens of the Stone Age’s polarizing Lullabies to Paralyze (from 2005) being the most prominent, consistent and justifiable whole comparison.
Call it a kneejerk or — even worse — completely lazy reaction to the album, given Homme’s attachment as co-producer, but it would perhaps be wrong to concede that this is anything less than a darker and murkier sound than we’d previously heard from the Sheffield lads. By the same accord, then, it would be disingenuous to imply that the music is that less catchy — this is still a suitable party soundtrack, and people will indeed still look good on the dancefloor as it’s playing. They just might be wearing heavier eyeliner and leather, and the strobe lights may be a bit more intense. (But don’t hold me to that.)
Homme, working alongside James Ford (who plays drums for Alex Turner’s side project, Last of the Shadow Puppets), has tapped into a sleazy undercurrent that was left largely unexplored on the group’s first two products, and his approach has even brought out some of the group’s best work. Clash Music’s Simon Harper cited the record’s “carnival-esque atmosphere… [and its] spooky and ethereal trip; a lysergic cavalcade that haunts every track.” How apt a description — remember “The Blood is Love,” from the aforementioned Queens record? Sure you do. It was the track with the creepy Lynchian merry-go-’round at the beginning. Now, imagine being thrust back into that world again, but with Alex Turner singing lines like, “I smelt your scent on the seatbelt / And kept my shortcuts to myself.” Come on — how can you go wrong that?
The band sounds engaged and balanced — playing at full force while managing to incorporate a few new tricks along the way (dig the acidic guitar solos!). If the record has flaws — and it certainly does — here they are: it is a bit muddled. It is a bit overzealous. It does tend to lumber on a bit too long at certain points (though one must not forget such accusations were once held by critics of Sabbath, Cream and Led Zeppelin for their longer psych freak-outs — and nothing on Humbug reaches the detached schizoid fever of, say, “Whole Lotta Love’s” middle section.) And as a rather personal pet peeve, I found Turner’s typically amusing slurring and mumbling just a bit harder to take at times — tell me that chorus to “Dangerous Animals” doesn’t sound like the first word is missing a letter, for example. Such, however, seem trivial complaints given the record’s nature — and the amount of fun to be had here.
Not to beat a dead horse, but this, too, must be said: Humbug is surely destined to be as divisive as the Queens’ Lullabies was, given not only its similar musical approach but even its identical sources of inspiration (Black Sabbath, for starters). It will also, most likely, come to be perceived as their most “challenging” and “complex” record with time — foreseeable labels, perhaps, but appropriate ones. Fans who found Favourite Worst Nightmare frustrating should stay well away, then. Others should rejoice at the sound of a band that isn’t afraid to explore the boundaries of an established sound — without entirely undermining their inherent appeal in the process. Yay!