As one of the people who first found out about the Arctic Monkeys through Myspace (remember that?) I found their debut album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” to be entirely enjoyable for some time, though they’ll forever be lumped with the exuberance that everyone approaches new music with when they’re just starting to build up their rotation.
They were British! That earned them quite a few points in my book, at a time when I would routinely listen to nothing but a mix of The Smiths, Blur, Suede and Supergrass. They tunes were catchy enough to boot, but more importantly, they weren’t well known at the time. This gave them an irresistible aura, coinciding with my eternally prideful moment when I heard Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” soon after it hit the Internet and immediately told people it would be a sensation. They were cool because they were barely shaving and becoming popular on the web, and I was cool for discovering them early on.
Of course, now I know that their debut album was a single-driven, somewhat amateur effort with an overt reliance on increasingly bland power chords. Their second album, “Favorite Worst Nightmare” did an admirable job shifting the group’s focus away from overwrought simple guitar work toward what they do best, playful pop music with a bit of a witty bite.
There’s a reason I couldn’t bear listening to “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” but was pleasantly surprised by just how good “Riot Van” and “Mardy Bum” were off of “Whatever…” Likewise, “Fluorescent Adolescent” stands out as exactly what’s right with the band, the mix of simple catchyness and smarter-than-expected lyrics showed promise of great things to come.
The Last Shadow Puppets, Arctic Monkeys album Alex Turner’s side band, then had to go and fill me with that, “Oh wow, these guys are onto something here,” feeling. “The Age of Understatement,” their debut album, was a fantastic back-and-forth trip between James Bond and “In Like Flint,” musically speaking (just listen to it, you’ll understand).
And now the Arctic Monkey’s third album, “Humbug,” just had to go and pull someone else out of my budding musical infancy, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age. Now, I haven’t cared about them for quite some time, given their sudden drop in quality after the departure of bassist Nick Oliveri, but I still remember feeling like the coolest kid in the world mowing the lawn to the sounds of “Songs for the Deaf.”
So how well does the musical collaboration of a well-intentioned, sex-driven, homophobic American stoner rocker and some young Brit wits work out?
Better than expected, actually. Things looked good once the first single, “Crying Lightning” debuted, though it relied far too much on transplanting Turner on top of an obviously Queens of the Stone Age backdrop. Just listen to the sex from the bass slide its hands down your neck, while the occasional wailing guitar sounds off in the distance, with the insistent drumming bringing you back into the fold. Every bit of it, especially the guitar solo, screaming Queens of the Stone Age.
But it’s not a matter of relying too much on Homme’s signature sound. As the album goes on, the two styles gel together increasingly well. The production is effectively atmospheric, Turner’s lyrics take a darker turn (though this doesn’t come as much of a surprise, given his progressively more mature wordplay) and the slow, purposeful rhytms and disregard for the slightest pandering toward the crowd that made the Arctic Monkeys so popular in the first place. Sure, “Cornerstone” sounds like a traditionally laid-back Britpop song at first, and then the opening lyrics come into play…
“Thought I saw you in the battleship
But it was only a lookalike
She was nothing but a vision trick
Under the warning light
She was close, close enough to be your ghost
But my chances turned to toast
When I asked her if I could call her your name.”
I mean, sheesh, it’s a song about a guy recovering from a breakup by trying to get with a bunch of girls, who them tell him off when he wants them to be known by his ex’s name…at least until the end of the song, when he ends up getting with his ex’s sister. If that’s not a love story from Homme’s mind, with lyrics far beyond what he can write, then I don’t know what is.
There are sure to be complaints about how it isn’t really an Arctic Monkeys album, how Homme’s signature sounds are so predominant that it almost feels like a Queens of the Stone Age album featuring Turner on vocals (though Homme does pop up from time to time on the microphone). But what’s there to complain about when this union results in a hazey, slowly swaggering album that takes your girl not with fists, but with a devious look and a well-placed quip?
“Humbug” is reminiscent of “Viva La Vida,” in that both go to show just how much power a solid producer can have on an album, with Brian Eno’s epic soundscape lifting Coldplay above their sissy tendencies and Homme bringing some American menance to the Arctic Monkeys.
“Humbug” is a slow burner that requires multiple listens before its worth truly sinks in, but once it does, it serves as proof not just of Homme’s ability to do superior work when collaborating with others to curb his own faults, but of the sort of dynamically shifting sound the Arctic Monkeys are putting out. It’s defintely not the third album I was expected all the way back in high school, while downloading the first album, track by track, off of Limewire.