THE ARCTIC MONKEYS GROW UP

Arctic MonkeysIt’s clear from "Humbug"’s hypnotic and haunting opener, “My Propeller”, that Sheffield’s most famous pop rockers have changed musical tack for their third album, released in late August.
 
With support from Josh Homme, producer for Queens of the Stone Age, and James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco, these new tracks sound cautious yet compelling: murkier, more muscular and–deep breath–more mature than the infectious, frenetic pop punk the Arctic Monkeys rose to fame with in 2005. And it’s not just the music that’s discernibly different; Alex Turner, the frontman, has exchanged his trademark Yorkshire yip for a more commanding vocal style that exudes Northern menace.
 
While the echoing gloom-rock of “My Propeller” serves as an adequate introduction to "Humbug", the album really gets into gear with the second track (and single) “Crying Lightning”, a more purposeful tune with a deep, grinding riff and plenty of swaggering charm aided by Turner’s nostalgic (and slightly lascivious) lyrics about gobstoppers and pick & mix candy.
 
The chugging “Dangerous Animals” aspires to something equally anthemic but is ultimately let down by a lazy, uninspiring chorus. Much better is “Secret Door”, whose rolling drums and insouciant, sweeping feel are reminiscent of Last Shadow Puppets (Turner's side project with Miles Kane of The Rascals and Ford as producer) and provide a welcome change of mood.
 
“Fire And The Thud”, with Alison Mosshart of The Kills, lives up to its title by meandering off toward no discernible destination. But the propulsive  “Potion Approaching” and the thumping, churning “Pretty Visitors”–with its phantasmagoric lyrics ("all the pretty visitors came and waved their arms / and cast the shadow of a snake pit on the wall") alongside such clumsy clonkers as “what came first? / the chicken or the dickhead”–remind us of the band’s former fire. The grainy, slightly lumpen “Dance Little Liar” and the richly extravagant finale “The Jeweller’s Hands” bring the rollercoaster ride to a close a mere 40 or so minutes from when it began.
 
It’s an asymmetrical experience, and not always successful. But what it sometimes lacks in searing hooks and stylish spark it makes up for by setting out a more substantial musical vision that should serve the Arctic Monkeys well for a few albums yet. Diehard fans will just have to face it--even cheeky monkeys must grow up sometime.

"Humbug" (Domino Recording Company Ltd) by the Arctic Monkeys, out now

~ PAUL SULLIVAN