Over the next few weeks, there’s probably going to be a lot of words expended on how much the Arctic Monkeys have radically changed on this, “Humbug”, their third album. There’ll be a lot about the influence of Josh Homme, about the lack of perceived immediate hits and so on. Plenty of more parochial music fans may well see “Humbug” as a Great British band absolving their local cultural responsibilities and becoming seduced with America and the desert rock sound nurtured so assiduously by Homme over the past decade and a half.
The truth, of course, is a fair bit more complicated. The first thing to say about “Humbug”, perhaps, is that it takes a while to bed in. As those who’ve heard “Crying Lightning” a few times now will testify, these are earworms, insidious songs which aren’t as immediate as, say, “Fluorescent Adolescent”.
The second thing is that heaviness is not necessarily what Homme has brought to the band. Certainly, the guitar frequencies are deeper and more resonant in places, and that wiry sound derived in part from The Strokes and The Libertines has been largely put to one side. But Alex Turner’s snaking, edgy way with a melody remains instantly recognisable, and there’s a good argument to say that the clattering extremes of “Favourite Worst Nightmare” are a lot chewier and heavier; plainly, Queens Of The Stone Age are far from a new influence on the band.
Homme’s role as producer, perhaps, has been to nurture the soundscaping that was attempted on “Humbug”’s predecessor (there are a lot of chill winds and ghostly harmonies blowing through these songs), and, critically, to encourage a sense of space and stealth. Arctic Monkeys songs are generally a lot slower this time round, moving at a measured pace with a heightened sense of menace and assuredness. Once, songs like “Dangerous Animals” and the very fine “Dance Little Liar” would gallop along at twice their speed, but now there’s a confident swagger where you can hear the musicians manoeuvre round each other in preparation for a ringing Jamie Cook solo, and detect Homme’s high, strong backing vocals finding room in the depths of the mix. Only “Pretty Visitors” really flies off the handle, but even that keeps riding up and down through the gears.
A couple of highlights. “Potion Approaching”, that begins like Homme’s patented robot-rock, then shifts and evolves into a kind of twanging, shuffling glam rock. Great last line: “Would you like me to build you a go-kart?” And “Cornerstone”, one of two songs produced by James Ford rather than Homme, manages to fit into the prevailing vibe perfectly, while also suggesting an upgrade of Turner’s Last Shadow Puppets schtick and providing plenty of fuel for those who see the Arctic Monkeys as natural heirs to The Smiths.