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Music Review

Arctic Monkeys: 'Humbug'

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Arctic Monkeys: 'Humbug'
Released on Monday, Aug 24 2009

As they return with album number three, it should be time for critics to get their teeth into the Arctic Monkeys. The tales of scuffles with nightclub bouncers and late-night kebabs of their debut, the darker, edgier but still hook-laden follow-up Favourite Worst Nightmare, and Alex Turner's Scott Walker-esque side-project The Last Shadow Puppets were all greeted with feverish praise and endless award recognition. Add in Turner's heavily-papped relationship with TV presenter Alexa Chung and the group's refusal to bow to record label/media pressures and morph into an U2-style touring machine, potentially saving the industry from financial ruin in the process, and they seem primed for a vicious backlash.

However, unperturbed by the British tradition of building-them-up-to-knock-them-down, the Arctic Monkeys have set sail for murkier rock waters. They could easily have released another five albums of 'Mardy Bum's and 'Dancefloor's, but artistically they wouldn't have been any better than the pitiful glut of imitators (Little Man Tate, Milburn) that splurged onto the music scene in their wake back in 2006. Thankfully, there are no tales of mischief from Hunter's Bar on Humbug. Instead, they've sought out the services of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme and headed out to Joshua Tree in California. The results, which find the band brooding over rumbling guitars and hook-less hunks of rock, are not for the faint-hearted.

This is Turner's fourth album in as many years, but his lyrical pen shows no signs of drying up. As his Shadow Puppets project suggested, he's shifted away from so-called "urban poetry", with the album's main theme being a hard-to-catch female (Anything to say for yourself Alexa?). However, that doesn't mean the band have lost their biting, Northern sense of humour, as they dare to open the record with the elongated phallic metaphor 'My Propeller' ("I can't hold down my urgency, you've got to make your descent slowly... have a spin of my propeller!"). Meanwhile, lead single 'Crying Lightning' may feature delicious references to strawberry lace and gobstoppers, but it's the track's stoner rock crunch that really surprises. If the Monkeys appeared muscular on Worst Nightmare, then on Humbug they're the musical equivalent of a steroid-pumped Austrian bodybuilder.

Homme's whip-cracking influence runs through the album's core and he even offers some fiendish backing vocals on 'Potion Approaching'. The swaggering sleaze of 'Dangerous Animals' and gothic 'Dance Little Liar' also have his brutish cool coursing through their veins. Meanwhile, the romantic interludes of 'Cornerstone' and 'Secret Door' contain the clearest references to the band's new love lives ("Fools on parade cavort and carry on for waiting eyes... she's never been the kind to be hollowed by the stares"). However, it's the tantalising album closers 'Pretty Visitors' - all sinister organs and motoring Matt Helders drums - and the sparse, haunting 'Jeweller's Hands' that hint at where the band could head next. For now though, this devilishly dark and unexpected album achieves what many presumed was impossible after their debut - it suggests that the Arctic Monkeys may still have their best music ahead of them.

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