I remember revving up Humbug back in 2009 and expecting another “Brianstorm” or “View From the Afternoon” to obliterate the speakers of my ’92 Accord. But rather than the delicious banger I craved, I got the awkward, mid-tempo stoner-rock slog of “My Propeller.”
“My Propeller” is not a bad song. In fact, it’s an awesome song and a masterfully crafted opener. It’s stuffed with layers of sludgy riffs and the hypnotic drum-work of the Arctic Monkeys’ secret weapon, Matt Helders. And it makes the tracks on the Monkeys’ earlier albums and EPs seem quaint and one-dimensional.
Humbug is the Arctic Monkey’s third proper LP, after their energetic debut Whatever People Say... and the moodier Favourite Worst Nightmare. Like their ‘00s buzz-band brethren, The Strokes, the Monkeys successfully avoided a sophomore slump. Hooray! But after you’ve seemingly proven yourself, what do you do with your third album? Do you continue trotting out the same sound that made you festival headliners and blog darlings? Or do you follow in Julian Casablancas’s footsteps with a First Impressions of Earth-like pivot that’ll expand your palette but land you a 5.9 from the Fork? (Gasp!)
Thankfully, the Arctic Monkeys took the latter approach. But whereas First Impressions suffers by taking itself too seriously, Humbug ain’t a serious album, folks. It’s a stage for lyrical absurdity, where frontman Alex Turner is the magician and the words are his props. It’s silly, often perplexing, and rarely boring.
Turner and the gang recorded the bulk of Humbug during a 2008, late-summer slumber party in the Mojave Desert with Josh Homme. This environment tranquilized the Arctic Monkeys’ youthful energy, and soaked their riffs in reverb like summer sweat. Turner slurs his words and always sounds like he’s enduring a scorching afternoon with a few beers and a joint.
And some of the lyrics here only work because Turner seems a little off. On the chorus of “Potion Approaching,” Turner sings “Yours is the only ocean / That I wanna swing from.” What the fuck, Alex? It’s the sound of a guy who’s a little delirious, but goddamn if he doesn’t stick the landing.
“Dangerous Animals” is another strange beast. It’s aggressive and grungy, and while Turner seems more lucid this time, he comes through a chorus that looks completely absurd on paper: “I’m pinned down by the dark / A-N-I-M-A-L / Makes my head pirouette / More than I’m willing to confess / D-A-N-G-E-R-O-U-S.” Reviews of the album maligned this track, but there’s a goofy quality I find kind of endearing.
That’s the thing about Humbug. If you let go of your cynicism and just give in to the nonsense, it’s got the whimsical vibe of a carnival or funhouse at a grimy local fair. “Secret Door” indulges that vibe, especially when it crescendos unexpectedly into a lighters-in-the-air stadium anthem about “fools on parade.” Cheesy as hell, but it works.
When I dove into this album in 2009, I was hoping for another Whatever or Favourite, and when I didn’t get what I wanted I instantly became a cynic. Hence, Humbug‘s charms eluded me for years.
Which makes me think about how I approach albums. The burden of expectation can wreck havoc on otherwise great music. For example, it’s going to be hard — if not impossible — to let go of that burden when I hear the new Father John Misty LP. But maybe I can figure out a way to conquer the “Humbug Effect” and enjoy the damn thing for what it is.