Humbug catapulted the Arctic Monkeys from local legends to global rock celebrities
Original release date: 19 August 2009
Label: Domino Records
This article is taken from Issue 134. Get your copy now via the online store.
Just in case their debut album hadn’t let the world know what Arctic Monkeys were about, the band followed it up three months later with an EP wryly titled Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?. Released in April 2006, the title poked fun at their meteoric rise while goading those who predicted an equally swift decline. In hindsight, it could easily have served as an alternate name for Humbug, the band’s eventual third album, which came out three years later and questioned everything that we knew about Arctic Monkeys . Far from being a notoriously tricky third album, Humbug instead injected new energy into a band, who, perhaps unknowingly, were angling to rebuild.
Across their first two albums – 2006 breakout Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare – Arctic Monkeys were pure northern England; an indie guitar act with razor-sharp humour, songs packed with shrewd kitchen-sink commentary and punky, bugged-out musical skills to match the head rush of a Saturday night out in Sheffield. Even when they tried to rock out – as on I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor or Brianstorm – they sounded agreeably scrappy, as if their proud Yorkshire upbringing wouldn’t allow them to submit to the gods of mainstream music culture.
Then they went to the US. To New York and Burbank, and also to Joshua Tree – the spiritual home of American desert mysticism – where they worked with rock royalty Josh Homme, a man whose greased-up aesthetic probably would have sent their younger selves sniggering to the nearest exit sign. But the move worked out better than anyone could have anticipated. Arctic Monkeys, it turned out, could not only keep up with the best of them, but also give them a run for their money.
Humbug was a radical departure from the high-pitched, spindly guitarwork of their first two albums. Instead there were gnarled, low-end riffs (Crying Lightning, Dangerous Animals) and psychedelic surf sensibilities (Fire and the Thud and Dance Little Liar), which provided a dark, pendulous depth without ever sacrificing their tender touch. Potion Approaching and The Jeweller’s Hands were like nothing the band had done before – the tracks’ brooding basslines and slow, percussive strut lacing the album with a sensual energy.
That air of lust is carried by Turner’s equally provocative lyrics, which became less parochial and more poetic. “My propeller won’t spin and I can’t get it started on my own/ When are you arriving?” he beckons on My Propeller, hinting that self-gratification just won’t suffice. You might not be able to say exactly what it means to have a game called Crying Lightning, but as the song’s distorted production marches on, its psychosexual power-play narrative becomes increasingly clear. The lyrics on the band’s first two albums were incredibly localised – right down to particular streets in Sheffield – but the language of Humbug had a sort of covert relatability. Where early Arctic Monkeys spoke to the specifics of south Yorkshire, Humbug feels universal.
To cope with the band’s newly bulked-up sound, Alex Turner adapted his singing voice; his vocal register becoming deeper, less frantic and, as a result, entrancing. He adopted more of a global rock voice without selling out to the US fraternity.
Today, Humbug is seen as a bridge between the old Arctic Monkeys and the new, with the band sloughing off their indie-punk origins in favour of a more experimental, worldly approach. You can trace the roots of what Arctic Monkeys would become in Humbug’s ten brief but captivating tracks. Matt Helders’ moody drumming not only revealed him as an unassuming star, but also laid the musical foundations for the sleazy R&B blues of 2013’s critically acclaimed AM. Humbug was also the first time the band started playing with percussion instruments like xylophones, glockenspiels, castanets and shakers, setting the stage for the space-station-lounge explorations of Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino.
At the time, no one knew what was to come. Some OG fans missed the old Monkeys, others wondered why Alex Turner sounded like that all of a sudden. Humbug may have lost them a few fans in the short term – Spin, for example, called it “not particularly infectious” – but for more open-minded listeners, it signalled a new beginning for the greatest band of the MySpace indie era. All we could do was fall at their feet.