I did suspect something awry the moment I noticed that Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner isn’t singing with his trademark hoodie gear on any more. When I learnt that the boys from Sheffield — who have made Yorkshire cockney the coolest thing in music since we started saying ‘fooking hell’ — were recording their fourth studio album in a place called New York, I was doubly nervous. My fears have been confirmed.
The opening track ‘My propeller’ is stretched-out, moody, the Monkeys hoping to sound like hairy rock apes. When Turner sings over the King Kong drums, “It’s a necessary evil/ No cause for emergency/ Borrowed the beak off a bald eagle/ Momentary synergy”, I miss the playful, cockiness that the Arctic Monkeys would have dealt with a subject as deep as performance anxiety (“My propeller won’t spin and I can’t get it started on my own”).
The sinister sound in ‘Crying lightning’ also seems like an attempt of the Wise-Assed Wonders to become more ‘complex’, more Victorian via something dragged out of the Swinging Sixties closet.
The band has talked about its influence of Jimi Hendrix and Cream in this album. The boot-stomping rhythm in ‘Dangerous animals’ certainly sounds from a zoo not too far from a Ginger Baker-rolled apartment on Carnaby Street. It’s not that Turner’s dexterity with language is missing. Lines like “The most unsuitable pet, it’s been long enough now so let’s make a mess, lioness” have flint sparks.
But what made them so flaming good in earlier albums — especially in their glorious mohalla boys-having-fun debut record, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not — is missing here in Humbug. The uber-coolness of bare-knuckled backbeat and chords liplocked to Turner’s wicked word-fountains has been replaced by a rather sombre flow of overplayed music with smart lines getting washed away.
I have nothing against bands sounding significantly different in their new adventures. Going by the only test parameters I know — music goes into the ears, effects the brain pleasingly or not — most of the tracks here sound like if the Arctic Monkeys were told to do something ‘interesting’ so as to win an American audience over. (Considering that the Monkeys were always considered as a over-hyped Brit band by the Yanks, I won’t be surprised if this more ‘intricate’ album doesn’t turn the guys on the banks of the Potomac on.) ‘Secret door’ sounds scarily like a Paul McCartney song.
A flash of old brilliance comes in ‘Potion approaching’ (the riff smelling of Nirvana’s Milk It), the military drums playing the perfect trampouline for the song.
‘Fire and thud’ does a dreamy Brit pop thing well, the jazzy guitars seemingly played by stick thin gents in suits and Fedora hats. The influence of Morrissey outs in the anti-ballad of ‘Cornerstone’: “I smelt your scent on the seat belt and kept my short cuts to myself... It was close, so close that the walls were wet... ”
These are the two tracks, really, where the Monkeys sound that they have moved on without sounding pret and poncey. Now to hope that Humbug doesn’t become a hit and give the boys the wrong ideas.