The Arctic Monkeys have always excelled in surprising their fans with new and innovative sounds from their albums. The release of Humbug in 2009 showed their diversity to create a new timbre, leading on from their second album Favourite Worst Nightmares. The hard hitting upbeat indie rock sound that had been present on previous releases, was replaced by an almost psychedelic slow ambient sound. Produced by Josh Homme, the album confidently dispatched an array of trippy sounds accompanied by song writing of the highest standard. With the hype surrounding them at the time, it is safe to say that this was a bold statement which ultimately cemented the group in indie music history.
The opening song Crying Lightning is by far the most aggressive on the album, and also had a single released in addition. Characteristic Alex Turner references to pick’n’mix, gobstoppers and strawberry laces provide a childish playfulness to the piece, with an ascending and descending guitar rift constant throughout. An opener that creates a desire for more. This is followed by similar in-your-face track in the form of My Propeller with heavy drum rolls and a dark guitar theme. The song starts strong but then almost feels like it is continuously building to climax again at the tail end. High pitched backing vocals from Nick O’Malley and Matt Helders accompanied by a church like organ sound helps to create a characteristic sound that sets the vibe for the rest of the album. Perhaps the boldest of the album follows with Dangerous Animals. A strong performance from Matt Helders, the percussive side to this track is perhaps as impressive as the ability to utilise tempo changes and explore half-time sections. The vocal hook of spelling out the song title makes for a catchy chorus.
Secret Door explores the lighter side of the album with ambience and swagger running throughout. The cathedral like organ finds itself snaking into this track too, accompanied by a bassline supporting the vocal harmony line. The psychedelic guitar effects create a washy feel along with the ‘ooo’s’ and ‘aaa’s’ which can be heard as more of a choir than backing vocals. Potion Approaching has a darker feel with a repetitive up and down guitar riff and simplistic drumming. Again, the exploration of half time sections, show the influences of 70s and 80s music on the group. The piece seems to snap back into place effortlessly and falls together to link another slower piece in Fire and the Thud. Perhaps the weakest of the album, but still an incredibly enjoyable piece. All the songs share a theme of progressing very successfully and this piece is an example of that.
A song writing and vocal masterpiece in Cornerstone illustrates perfectly the theme for the album. The dreamy vocal line epitomizes an Alex Turner love song. The piece focuses around women who look like the ex-lover of Turner’s, with references to meeting them in different pubs. He delivers the piece with such emotion and lyrical flair that the listener is left in awe especially with the final line: ‘…yes, You can call me anything you want.’ The highlight of the album in my eyes. Shaky guitar riffs ring out to begin Dance Little Liar with percussive support by brilliant tom work from Helders. This track progresses to an impressive climax. Tension seems to build throughout, with some aspects of previous albums showing. Tight drum rolls and snapping guitar sounds bring the piece together in the end, as the Monkeys display their roots a little more.
A fast paced, frantic pieced opened by the characteristic organ, can only be described as a drumming masterclass. On previous albums, this has been present in songs such as Brianstorm, and this track truly establishes Helders and one of the great indie-rock drummers to grace the genre. Deep harmonic vocal support is provided by the group throughout the chorus again almost forming a bass sections of vocals as the track continuously gets heavier and heavier. The Jewellers Hands sees Nick O’Malley issue a fierce bassline which runs the song. In terms of storytelling, Turners nails it with metaphors and word placement making the track so successful. The short track that follows, I Haven’t Got My Strange can only be described a weird. I found that the piece grew on me the more I listened to it. It almost feels like a B side to a single but is thoroughly enjoyable. The final song on the album is a cover by the Australian band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds called Red Right Hand, and perhaps is more well known in recent times for its appearance as the theme tune to Peaky Blinders. This cover of it is in typical hard hitting fashion and perhaps does not fit with the overall theme of the album.
Humbug is in my eyes a classic and would regard it as one of the top two Arctic Monkeys albums. At the time that it was released, I believe that it ranked equally to previous albums. The album showed maturity in song writing, and also widened the spectrum of musical style that the group could conquer. With releases as brave and unorthodox as this one, who knows what direction the upcoming album will take.