In the mid 2000s, you would be hard pressed to find a more popular band than the Arctic Monkeys. Their first two albums each won the band the award for Best British Album and Best British Group at the 2007 and 2008 Brit Awards. They broke sales records and skyrocketed into the limelight as not only Britains most popular Rock band but also one of Britains most talented. They had cultivated a huge audience, with their guitar and drum lead Garage Rock sound and so it would be entirely fair for a band of their popularity to stick to what they knew worked and continue with this sound. And yet, come 2009 with the release of their third album Humbug, it was clear this was not the bands intention.
In 2008, the band took to a studio around the Mojave Desert and began to record some songs they had been toying with throughout their tour the previous year. Whilst the album still heavily features the amazing talents of Matt Helder’s drumming and Jaime Cook’s guitar, it sounded nothing like any of their previous works. It was grimier, dingier and had an almost waxy quality to its presentation. The band had introduced several new instruments which they had previously never used before. Baritone guitars and slide guitars with added mixing effects give each song an almost sludge-like quality as well as keyboards and synths which further pulled the band further away from their established sound. Songs like Fire and The Thud and Dance Little Liar each posses an eerie, murkiness like nothing else in the band’s discography. Even the drums at times are only vaguely reminiscent of the bands prior work, sometimes ditching the rawkus sounds of the first two albums for something more closely resembling a marching band, the songs My Propeller and Dangerous Animals being prime examples of this. All of these choices create an air of ever present gloom around the album, even on the lighter or more energetic songs.
It was not just the instrumentals that changed either. The band’s lead singer Alex Turner seemed to evolve from the tales of late-night drinking and general misbehaviour of teenage life and instead opted for a more metaphorical approach, all whilst retaining the cheekiness the band had became famous for. (“What came first the chicken or the dickhead?”). Along with a new, large mop of hair, Turner tells similar stories of heartache and bad habits but this time with a darker take. The imagery he uses is so vivid and layered that although the message he puts across is clear on a surface level, there is still enough ambiguity to dig beneath the lyrics and unpack the song even further. Cornerstone is a prime example of a simple story of a guy trying to forget a past relationship but not being quite able to move on (eventually hooking up with his ex’s sister) that is told with enough striking imagery so as not to bore the listener. On the other side of the scale songs like The Jeweller’s Hand offer so much symbolism, that you need to almost study lyrics to find the embedded meaning.
Turner’s voice also changes slightly from the past two albums. He holds back more of the energy that he used on many previous tracks and withholds from exploding into a fury of enthusiasm -sometimes even taking an extremely subdued cadence- and instead chooses the right moments throughout the album to let himself loose. Crying Lighting, starts incredibly moody and as the song progresses it gets more and more eruptive until reaching it’s climax. Similarly, Cornerstone and Secret Door showcase Turner’s outstanding ability to shift from being earnest and almost fragile to being passionately assertive about his feelings.
For me, Humbug marks an important shift in Arctic Monkey’s discography. It demonstrated the band’s ability to change their sound and expand into unknown territory in order to remain fresh and interesting. Without this album, I highly doubt the band would have ever ventured into the dramatic change of direction on AM, let alone the direction they went through on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Whilst some never took to the aesthetic of Humbug, for me at least, it stands as one of the band’s most ambitious projects and one of (if not the) best albums the band has produced.