Domino Records · August 19, 2009
Most Arctic Monkeys fans can admit that the first time they listened to Humbug, they didn’t like it. With its slower tempos, crunchy guitar, and psychedelic organ accompanying Turner’s low croon, Humbug is an album that requires a certain mood to listen to: a hate-everyone-and-everything kind of mood. Humbug is the Monkeys’ third album, following Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and Favourite Worst Nightmare, two albums that told witty, punk rock tales of rebels traipsing small town UK streets. While Humbug may lose the fast-paced tempo, it gains an honest lyricism that explores the darkest sections of lead singer and songwriter Alex Turner’s mind.
The album opens with “My Propeller,” a song that both pleads for a savior to act as Turner’s “propeller” by bringing him out of his depressed rut, and more crudely, is a metaphor for his penis, exploring his loneliness and lust. Lust is a theme throughout the album, one that Turner explores in detail. “Crying Lightning” is one of the album’s standout songs, telling the tale of a femme fatale in a convenience store with plenty of “pick and mix” for a lover to chew on. “Cornerstone” is arguably the strongest song on the album, describing the search for lost love through local bars. It contains some of my favorite Alex Turner lyrics. “And I elongated my lift home / Yeah I let him go the long way round / I smelt your scent on the seat belt / And kept my shortcuts to myself.” It’s details like these – the smell of a lover on the seat belt, the fascination with chewing pick and mix – that propel this album into a level of lyrical genius achievable only by Alex Turner.
Turner embodies mankind’s darker sides in “Dance Little Liar,” which tells of a cheating man caught in a web of lies he’s woven to keep his girlfriend from finding out. “The Jeweller’s Hands” closes the album with a story of a woman tempted into a doomed affair. It’s the first Monkeys song accompanied solely by keyboard, a foreshadowing to their most recent album Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, which Turner wrote on his piano. Turner delves into the character of a heartbroken lover in search for a woman to fix him. His songs are the musings of a man who, despite his attempts to create fictional characters, comes back to the same forlorn story again and again.
The shift in style that Humbug brought about ten years ago today marked many firsts for Arctic Monkeys. It was the first time the band stepped out of their comfort zone of punk rock, collaborating with Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age. He took them into “the weird and the strange” desert of Joshua Tree to record their album and influenced their dive into psychedelic use of guitar and organ. It was the first of many masks that Turner would come to wear, from the stripped down honesty of Suck It and See to the heavily gelled rock star of AM to the James Bond-esque Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino. It was the first time the Monkeys proved themselves as a band that could camouflage into another, with a depth of skill that could carry them from punk to psychedelic to alternative rock and back again. On the ten year anniversary of Humbug we can celebrate the album for what it was: the lovesick musings of a man who was just about to realize he was capable of changing the world.