Humbug marks both the band’s ascent into stardom and the end of their promise.
Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?: both an EP from the Sheffield quartet and an imperative question in 2009 for the mad lads. After riding in on the wave of good fortune generated by Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, Arctic Monkeys wanted to go in every direction possible. Their 2006 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not fit well in the garage rock revival, but also rejected its key tenets of coolness and sex. While Franz Ferdinand were being the sluttiest Scottish boys they could be, AM were striking out with lasses on Friday night only to see them again at their dead-end jobs at Tesco on Monday. But perhaps no band of their era was a better embodiment of “fame changes people,” and by their follow up Favourite Worst Nightmare, front man Alex Turner had begun his evolution into swaggering sex symbol. But Nightmare didn’t quite gain the ravenous applause of their debut. So the boys packed up, moved to the U.S. and enlisted Queens of the Stone Age mastermind Josh Homme to complete their heel turn.
Humbug served as the nexus for all that mutation, expectation and experimentation. Until their zig into goddamn lounge music on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, it was undoubtedly the oddity in the discography. Unlike the focused rock muscle of Nightmare or the steely nervousness of Whatever People Say I Am, Humbug wanted to be cool damn it!
There’s much more American rock here, the Monkeys being taken in by the myth of “alt rock” with a few tracks even sounding like they could be Foo Fighters’ B-Sides. That goes about as well as you’d expect, but Humbug’s approximations of West Coast rock ’n’ roll wound up as pastiches or facsimiles of the real thing. Homme’s shadow looms large, even beyond his ghostly vocal contributions. The bass slink of “Potion Approaching” is straight out of the Era Vulgaris playbook and the band’s penchant for fuzzed basslines and guitars growling on the first two strings was surely egged on by Homme. Turner exulted in the slower tempos. This was the first time we heard him smolder for an entire album. Whatever People Say I Am was too awkwardly energetic and Nightmare cast Turner as an observer, using the Wallflower POV to smirk at thee depravity of moldy clubs and after-hours parties.
Humbug served as Turner’s chance to put himself directly in the spotlight. A myriad of lost lovers and empty beds parades around the music; even when he claims it doesn’t. “My Propeller,” was apparently about writer’s block, but “My propeller won’t spin/ And I can’t get it started on my own” and “Coax me out my low/And have a spin of my propeller,” come on man, you’re not fooling anyone. “Cornerstone” shows plenty of that old shuddering flirtatiousness, but in a decidedly sigh-inducing way. Turner wonders the streets, popping into pubs, finding woman after woman who looks like his old flame. He puts on the charm, looks like he’s going to seal the deal… then asks if he can call the new Paramore his ex’s name. For a guy who’s trying to transition to the suavest motherfucker on the planet, dude needed some pointers.
And Turner’s inability to fully inhabit Don Juan reflected his band’s discomfort in being an American rock band. At their best, both now and then, they were supercharged Elvis Costello, using rangy guitars and rattling drums to give a ramshackle feeling to every note, like the studio was about to fall apart on them if they didn’t knock the demos out now. With this new, lounging BPM, the guitars feel to lethargic. Drummer Matt Helders came out the worst of wear. Along with Bloc Party’s Matt Tong, he was the percussionist de jour of the whole scene, propelling the sound even more than anything electric. “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “Brianstorm” are still mammoth drum tracks, but he never gets a chance to let loose on Humbug. It’s only on the back half of the album where he takes the training weights off. “Pretty Visitors” is the punkest of the lot and, what a surprise, is easily the best song here. Turner’s barking delivery reinjects the album with a deliciously nasty energy and Helder compliments him with avalanching drum fills that almost makes up for the sleepiness of everything else here.
In their desperation to be Queens of the Stone Age, The Arctic Monkeys forgot that Homme’s greatest trick was variability. Seducing one moment, flying off the handle the next then sobbing on the bathroom floor while someone offered mescaline, that was the QOTSA experience. Turner only read the Rated R handbook to the first chapter and a half, reserving nearly all of Humbug for the slow burn intoxication of maneuvers in the dark.
Unfortunately, Humbug proved to be prophetic. Follow-up Suck it and See was the band’s nadir, all geriatric grooves and overcomplicated come-ons. Then AM came out and ruled the world. The radio finally gave them air time and NME declared it the greatest accomplishment in human history (probably). But in the wake of AM and the baffling pivot of Tranquility Base, most of The Arctic Monkeys’ work after their opening duo has rung hollow, filled with forced machismo that drowns out the formerly darkly humorous undercurrent that ran through their best work. So who the fuck were the Arctic Monkeys? Well, 10 years on, Humbug marks both their ascent into stardom and the end of their promise.