Whilst listening to the Arctic Monkeys’ third album Humbug last week I noticed its release date was five years ago to the very day. I remembered on my first hearing being slightly confused by it; it hadn’t the immediacy of their first two albums and only a handful of tracks jumped out at me from the speakers. I’d loved the sinister single “Crying Lightning”, but I’ll admit it took me another year or so to fully appreciate the album as a whole. Since then I’ve firmly believed it to be their best album and even last year’s critically and commercially mammoth AM didn’t make it slip down my personal pecking order.
Humbug tells a story, one of tricks and hi jinks, butlers pushing on bookshelves, circus animals and traditional, old school confectionery. Lyrically it plays on themes of mystery and uncertainly with a hint of hedonism; littered throughout the albums ten songs are cleverly placed words to conjure up twisted 19th century vaudeville. “Carnival”, “house of cards”, “potion”, “magic trick”, “secret door”, “pirouette”, “balancing act”, “acrobat”, “lioness” and “snake pit” are highly evocative yet utilised in a context not too blatant to make it open to interpretation.
“Cornerstone” is a lyrical highpoint, a love song with a twist to rival the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” for a punchline to climax the song’s narrative. Alex Turner adopts the persona of a young hopeless on a loved up pub crawl, desperate to re-encounter a girl whose face he’s “worried he’ll forget”, with each verse referring to a different pub in which he thought he had glimpsed her. Displaying a hilarious lack of social grace by asking three different girls if he can call them her name, he then finds her sister in the Cornerstone and the listener expects a happy reunion with the mystery girl in keeping with the song’s breezy A major key. Instead, she of all people is happy to be called “anything he wants” (presumably even including her sibling’s name), implying the fickleness of youth; he’ll have her instead. There are not many songs that make me chuckle, but the chutzpah of Turner’s character is an absolute uproar. Only he can get away with using the word “elongated” in the first line of a chorus without it sounding self-indulgent or lame.
Individually and collectively the Arctic Monkeys had become far more accomplished musically, in only two years marking a technical progression that would have taken their peers ten. On tracks such as “Potion Approaching” and “Dangerous Animals” Turner and Jamie Cook’s lead guitar work is rich and decadent, displaying clear Hendrix and Cream era Clapton influences with lilting, unresolved high notes sliding and bending up the top of the neck. Additionally, the druggy rhythm guitars and organ throughout the album provide a kaleidoscopic backwash of instrumental wizardry that establishes a link with the undoubtedly significant Lullabies to Paralyze.
They branched out with the use of instruments also. Xylophones, glockenspiels and the calliope influenced organ sound that starts “Pretty Visitors” again alluded to a Victorian travelling show with a twist. During performances of the song just before the instrumental break Turner would throw his arms into the air shouting “ha ha!” like a corrupt and charismatic ringleader before adding an absolutely filthy slide guitar solo.
What is most refreshing is that Alex Turner still embraced his homespun Sheffield tones as part of his distinctive singing voice. Fellow Yorkshire man Jake Thackray’s vocal influence is clear; deliberate native inflections and emphasis on syllables when you least expect it. “Secret Door” must be the album’s finest vocal performance; switching from aggressive to a delicate, world weary croon that ebbs and flows. Drummer Matt Helders also finds his voice, exploring the higher octave that he’d come to perfect on AM. But it’s not a case of style over substance. Favouring the minor key for 80% of the album lends a beautiful melancholy that flows throughout. Some of the most melodic moments of their career so far can be found in “Fire and the Thud” and “Dance Little Liar”.
It’s no doubt that Humbug is a challenging listen. But what frustrates me is how so many are ready to dismiss it as their weakest effort possibly due to its lack of immediacy in comparison to its cockier brother AM or more fashionable Favourite Worst Nightmare. Five years ago so many skinny jeans wearing indie kids were disillusioned by it and perhaps haven’t listened to it since. But the thought of it left forgotten on so many CD collections makes me very sad. So I urge you; give it another listen. It operates on a level that none of their other albums come close to.