The Rise and Stumble of the Arctic Monkeys

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Humbug review and CD + LP giveaway.

Remember when the Arctic Monkeys were supposed to be the next big thing? It was back when a bunch of new bands were hitting the scene and everyone was drinking the We Are Scientists Kool-Aid. It was late 2005, and the Arctic Monkeys were the talk of the town, the saviors of indie rock, the heir apparent to the newly built Franz Ferdinand throne. “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” had people dancing across a number of continents, and their cheekily titled album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, was the fastest selling debut album in UK history.

It was a fantastic debut album, and the Monkeys had a good mix of musical chops and cocky confidence. They seemed disinterested in label games, willing to alienate radio and label heads in favor of a grassroots fan-base.

But despite not seeking press (or perhaps because of it) there was a fair amount of media involved in the construction and rise of the Arctic Monkeys. Sure, the band had built a committed following online, they had brought the noise on their debut, and they had crafted a bunch of really danceable rock tunes. But a debut album is by no means a body of work, and when NME named Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not the 5th best British record of all time, people started to scratch their heads. The follow-up LP from the group, Favourite Worst Nightmare, saw all 12 tracks crack the top 200 on the UK singles chart. And then we started to get nervous.

Well, the nerves probably started earlier than that, but suffice it to say that not everyone bought that initial buzz hook, line, and sinker. It seemed a bit like we were pinning big hopes to a young brash band that might not follow through. Were we just swallowing whatever they songs they gave us and proclaiming excellence out of fear of it being anything less than incredible? Were the Arctic Monkeys just The Killers on a one year delay? Only time will tell, as the saying goes, and that time has come. Now, shortly before the release of the band’s third full length, Humbug, we find ourselves in the modern dilemma of pinning great expectations on a band that didn’t ask for them. The Arctic Monkeys have to prove that they are grown up before they have actually grown up.

My favorite Arctic Monkeys songs are all defined by the unbridled emotion – they play their music fast and hard without worrying about the repercussions. “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” rips through sharp lyrics and blistering guitars, without even pausing to take the time to affirm the very fact that the song proposes. There is a youth in the music, a “We don’t have to prove nothing to nobody” vibe that distances the band from the Coldplays and Oasises (Oases?) of the world.

That youthful intensity is all but missing from Humbug. The sense of urgency is gone. The rush to stop talking about things and just freaking get on with living is slowed to a gentle pulse. Humbug looks a lot like a kid playing dress-up. The clothes may be grown up and classy, but they just don’t fit. Slow and steady is a poor match for the Arctic Monkeys. In their haste to grow up, the Arctic Monkeys have produced an album that largely ignores their strengths. And it. Is. Boring.

Notice that I don’t say that it’s bad. Because it’s honestly not a bad record. The lyrics are fine, the melodies are decently catchy, and songs like “Pretty Visitors” and “Potion Approaching” hint at that jaunty feel of yore. But across the album’s 10 songs, there is very little that is – to be blunt – particularly interesting.

I’m surprised. The album features production credits from Josh Homme, frontman of Queens of the Stone Age, a guy who doesn’t strike me as one to sugarcoat things – he historically has not been the calmest cookie. I’d expect a partnership between Homme and the Arctic Monkeys to be a lot like mixing fireworks and alcohol: awesometastic. Instead, it’s mostly disappointing.

Most fans of the Arctic Monkeys, and I know there are a fair number of them around these here pages, will enjoy this release. And they'll probably hate this review. They'll point out that Humbug shows the band in a more mature light, with some more developed ideas, more solidified songs. They'll look at the examples when the band hits the nail on the head – “Crying Lightning,” for example, is a great lead single that really grows on you. “Dangerous Animals,” aside from the dumb spelling game it plays, is a thoroughly enjoyable tune that thrives when you turn the volume up. The album is polished and the technique is solid. No longer are the Arctic Monkeys the impertinent kid at the door, they'll say. They've grown up! The door has swung open, and they are sitting down at the dinner table with the adults! But honestly, I'll reply, that’s not why I listen to the Arctic Monkeys. I don’t want them to sit down and put their napkin in their lap and talk politics. I want them to stand on chairs, throw food, and make everyone look at them.

Humbug is worth a couple listens. It’s worth checking in to see how the Arctic Monkeys are developing, to note the few good songs that might warrant some additional spins down the line. But after listening to it for a while now, I can’t help but feel that it’s largely forgettable - certainly within music as a whole, and even within the Arctic Monkeys' discography. Humbug doesn’t do too much to grab my attention, and when tracks like “Pretty Visitors” do manage to catch my ear, they merely make the rest of the record seem more disappointing in comparison.

Perhaps this third album isn’t the answer we’re looking for, and the question of whether the Arctic Monkeys deserve the hype will linger on until another release. I haven’t given up on the band, but they haven’t found that sweet spot between immature and boring, which they desperately need to do. Humbug swings too far along the spectrum, and ends up with no bark and not much bite. If this is what maturity sounds like, I don't want to grow up. Bring back the bravado next time, and let’s rock and roll.

Arctic Monkeys
Humbug

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Domino
out August 25th

59/100
[Rating Scale]

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