ARCTIC MONKEYS: HUMBUG (2009)
1) My Propeller; 2) Crying Lightning; 3) Dangerous Animals; 4) Secret Door; 5) Potion Approaching; 6) Fire And The Thud; 7) Cornerstone; 8) Dance Little Liar; 9) Pretty Visitors; 10) The Jeweller's Hands.
The Monkeys have most certainly stepped on the path of evolution, and should be now dubbed the Arctic Paranthropi. Reports on Humbug have varied accordingly, from insulted cries of betrayal to placated admissions of growing up. But then Alex Turner and his buddies never took the sacred AC/DC oath of forever staying true to one style, and, with their implicit claims of intellectuality and twenty-first century smartness, it was inevitable that sooner or later they would get bored with bare-bones rock'n'roll, no matter how multiangular they made it.
It is, however, hard to define their new direction. They slow down the tempos; bring in more of the old studio tricks (echo, reverb, delay, etc.); variegate the instrumentation, throwing in organs and a bit of old-fashioned synths and even some glockenspiel; and entrust Turner with new algorithms to encrypt his lyrics, so that most of the time you do not have the faintest idea what they are singing about. (Detailed analysis shows they are still mostly singing about getting some, and if you listen carefully, you will be rewarded with such great hookup lines as 'Coax me out, my love, and have a spin of my propeller' and 'Yours is the only ocean that I want to swing from, yours is the only ocean that I want to hang on to'. How the heck can you swing from an ocean?).
In the end, Humbug is decidedly darker than its predecessors, who themselves were no joyfests either. Turner assumes a sinister, impenetrable stance, sucking in a mix of Ian Curtis/Nick Cave influences, and each second song is extremely bass-heavy, sometimes bordering on metallic. (Not coincidentally, one of the bonus tracks on the Japanese edition is a straightahead — and excellent — cover of Cave's 'Red Right Hand'.) But it is all very much a matter of bluff: this kind of pretentious darkness only works when there is substance behind it. Is there?
If there is, I have yet to sense it. For the most part, it feels like a bunch of well-meaning mannerisms. The guitars howl, the bass growls, the vocalist insinuates some eerie crap, the production is all wobbly and echoey, but no matter how hard the magician's apprentice tries to master the spell, the magic just isn't there. Some songs are more memorable than others: I count stronger hooks on 'My Propeller', 'Crying Lightning', 'Potion Approaching' (the most energetic number on the album), and 'Dance Little Liar', but even these could have been written by anyone. Not a single riff on here manages to shake my foundations in the slightest way possible. Not a single lyrical bit manages to convince me that they have something all their own to tell me. They just love their old heroes and they want to be like them. But they have no power to be like them.
Yes, sadly, it all means the simplest of things: the Monkeys have brains and ambitions, but very little musical talent — or, putting it more optimistically, their talents are still waiting to be shook up and awakened. Nowhere is this more evident than on the final tune: 'The Jeweller's Hands' has a long, atmospheric coda that is presumably supposed to leave the listener in an overwhelmed state of «depressed beauty», but they lack the power to pull it off properly, and all of their wailing guitars and melancholy choruses just go to waste. There is no reason whatsoever for anyone to voluntarily submit to their third-rate hypnosis. It is all too trivial. I applaud the desire to change, the escape from the pigeonhole, the smartness, the coolness. Now how about writing some good songs, guys? Thumbs down.