Humbug

I’m relying a lot on hindsight here. I have too. If I recall, certainly in my head, Humbug was a cross roads point for the Monkeys. They’d released a debut that not only broke several hundred records, but was loved by critics and fans alike. Favourite Worst Nightmare, saw a small shift, one a of a band developing their skills while transporting them into the new made world they’d found themselves in but never losing sight of who they were.

Humbug was written following a period of touring, but also Turner working on his Last Shadow Puppets project (the Scott Walker indebted album made with Miles Kane). If that side project was Turner exploring one side of his music interests, then Humbug went the complete other way.  The Hyde to the LSP Jeckyl. Decamping to the Desert with Josh Homme of the Queens of the Stone Age., and producing the rest in New York. The songs were heavier, the riffs more pronounced, it was sexier, the drums hit harder, the hair longer. They’d hinted at a new heavier, groovier, new sound with FWN, but no one quite saw this coming. The new influencers shining through. Yet despite all this, it was still clearly an Arctic Monkeys album.

Every time I listen to the album now I forget just how much I like it and how great it generally is. It’s also never quite  as heavy as I think it will be. Maybe that was the media at the time, and the promos shifting my perception. Over the last week it’s the album I’ve gone back to most, maybe baring the second half of FWN. Even now I still feel there is a lot more to learn about the album. Did I, and many others, write the album off as a project of a band looking to push their boundaries, who’d get it out the system and then return to what made them successful? Probably. Of course we were all wrong. Humbug allowed them the freedom to call the shots. And if you think Humbug was a huge shift in direction, wait till you hear Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino!

I should probablt add here, that Turners lyrics are still superb. They should never be taken for granted. The social commentary is long gone, but the story telling creates more imagery than before, and the sneer has developed even more of an edge (“what came first/the chicken or the dickhead?”).

The previous albums opened like a grey hound out the traps. Big, bold statements ready to capture your attention. My Propeller,  the sexiest song they’d written by far at this point, with it’s less than subtle metaphors showed a new side. Groovier with more space for the song to grow and Turners vocals with a new sultry, quality. 

Elsewhere, the songs get heavier, Crying Lightening, Dangerous Animals and Potion Approaching. While the desert experience oozes through Dance Little Liar and Fire And Thud. The influence of Josh Homme runs throughout. 

However that would do a disservice to Cornerstone and Secret Door, which are more indebted to the traditional songwriting seen in its follow up, Suck it and See. They prevent the album getting too dragged down, but maybe impacting the flow. But bring a familiarity of the Monkeys of old, while still sounding nothing like any thing they’ve written.

Maybe the biggest issue is that, despite being afforded the luxury of doing whatever they wanted (which they’ve run with ever since), it’s hard to sense how much fun they had when making it. They’d not have made it to sell millions of copies, though they were a a stage of their popularity, where a series of farts with Turner crooning over the top would have probably sold similar amounts. 

The production and writing are brilliant, and still stand up now. I’m still picking out new bits throughout he album, and always reminds me that I should listen to it more than I have. 

Originally, when putting my list together, I had this languishing at the bottom. But I could quite easily put this at the top on another day. It’s just hard to pinpoint what makes it such a rewarding listen, but also what prevents it becoming the “go to” album.

 

Favourite Worst Nightmare

Only 15 months passed between Arctic Monkey's debut and their 2nd album. They'd also found the time to record and release Leave Before The Lights Come On, which seems to be relatively unknown and unloved these days, but is a superb single, and the Who's The Fuck Arctic Monkey's EP (Despair In The Departure Lounge is one of their best ever songs). They were still everyone's Favourite New Band by this point. The easy option would have been to release Whatever... Mk2. Make another album about growing up in Yorkshire, and the scraps they got in. Expectation was so high, and clearly the demand would have been there.

Instead, in that short 15 months, they turned round an album with a more mature sound and new themes. The build up to the album was at fever pitch, when they dropped the lead single Brianstorm. An exhilarating, beast of a tune, heavier than anything they'd previously released, about a Record Label executive. Nothing like a single should be.  Certainly not from the hottest band in the country. This was merely a sign of a band who were only going to do things their way.

The album was darker than it's predecessor. Teddy Picker (I saw them play Astoria (RIP), just before the album was released, and it was a clear stand out from the gig.) Continuing the theme of sneering at the circus that they'd found themselves in. Ridiculing the nature of it.

D is for Danger and Balaclava are probably the closest songs to the debut, which build up to Fluorescent Adolescent. A big sister to Mardy Bum, and closing the first half of the album. A perfect pop song, reflecting on past relationships and growing up.

The 2nd half showed a more notable change. One of a band willing to push things further forward. Only One's who know, more than a few steps away from FA, a slow, wistful, melancholic tune. The 1-2 punch of Do Me A Favour and This House Is a Circus are exhilarating. A band with new confidence found, exploring where they can go next. Both songs, build and twist and turn. Turner's lyrical skill continuing to grow. No longer content on commentating on the every day, but dark break up songs from the perspective of the one in the wrong and analysing the new bizarre world that they've found themselves in. It's a heady mix of the youthful naivety, and exuberance, that made the debut such a, but a new found wariness of the world they've found themselves in. The ability to create these songs without alienating their fanbase, isn't an easy task. Many bands fall on the wayside, by trying to repeat the first album, yet not actually having lived that life for several years. On the flip side, no one cares about millionaire rock stars having a shit time of it all.

The album continually switches between the 2 themes, not necessarily unconnected, of Love lost and broken, but of the music industry and people trying to steal their souls. This gives it a much darker tone than the debut, and maybe all of their albums. It still contains all of the energy and thrill that the debut provided, but with more assuredness. Matt Helders drums continue to drive the album, and Nick O'Malley (making his recording album debut) has some superb baselines (Yellow Bricks and House is a Circus the obvious examples). Turner's lyrics are never out of place, nor too try hard.

The album opens with the heaviest song they'd done to date, about the music industry and the (badly dressed) chances. It ends with 505. A song that proved just how great they could, and would, become, even if they've not managed to quite repeat that trick yet. It's brooding, and some of his finest vocal work, not just then, but now. A love song to the one he barely see's. At 2 minutes 30, when the song goes up the final notch, Turners Vocal become a yelp, I still get goosebumps. I know it's coming, but it's that good. It was capturing the feeling that anyone has felt when in love, but can't be there with them. 

When the argument/debate started about our favourite albums, I straight away called this as my favourite. I'm still evaluating, but it's everything a 2nd album should be. They've not tried to repeat the debut to make sales, but they're the still the same band you fell in love with. I prefer the darker tone, the shift in tempos, the ability that Turner found to make his lyrics more ambiguous, but more interesting. It also gave a glimpse into the different directions that the band would take themselves, not just on to the 3rd album (though maybe no one expected it to go quite that way), but beyond that.

 

 

Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not - a retrospective

Less than a handful of days, until the next entry in the Arctic Monkeys release. Very few bands demand the level of discussion that they get when launching a new album. A band who’ve constantly evolved, not just musically, but with their choice of haircuts and facial hair. Debate whether Alex Turner has lost the plot. Or if he takes himself too seriously (I had one very brief meeting just before FWNM was released and he was very shy. Personally, I think the on stage and interview act, is just that. An act. A way of allowing himself to control the situation). Despite the evolution, they have nearly always excelled... this lead to a conversation in the office about the order of their best albums. My choices were described as being left field for the sake of it, or, “you don’t mean that.”

Therefore, I ordered we listen to the albums in chronological order, and then list them. Clearly, now I’m trying to make this site a success, it felt only right to do a review of each album, what it means to me, and try and decide. 

Straight away I boldly announced that Whatever You Say... was only their 4th best album. I MAY revisit this opinion after all 5 albums. 

I remember well before the album had been launched. Another band discovered on what I’ll always, lovingly, refer to as Dot.org (a story for another time). Some friends of mine actually put on Arctic Monkeys first London gig.

They arrived at a time when the ramshackle indie of The Libertines was fast running out of places to go, and once again, Guitar  music was being pronounced as dead. But as always, we had a new pretender to revive the genre. NME always keen to create a new scene, or build up a band, ready to knock them down once they’d got too successful were one of the first to champion a band with a terrible name. It’s so ingrained in our culture now, you don’t even think of it now. But it’s a terrible name. Good on ‘em I say.

After all the demos, came the single, I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor. An absolute banger, that rang not just in every indie disco through the country, but every club, and every radio station. It was a phenomenon. Straight to Number 1, with a simple, but great video.

Then came the album. Listening back now, it’s easy to forget how genuinely brilliant this is, and was at the time. As soon as the first drums of The View From The Afternoon arrived, followed by the clashing guitars, we knew they were more than just pretenders, then came Turners delivery. Less singing, more rapping, yet, in an Yorkshire accent, about every day life. The days of the mythical Albion replaced by reminders “You’re not from New York, you’re from Rotherham.” And nights out queuing to get into a club.

The album has few fillers, thought I Bet, Mardy Bum and When The Sun comes down, sound tired to me now. Maybe because all the Friday nights I spent losing my shit to these songs, or that they’re seen as near novelty songs, played at weddings to keep the indie kids happy. Of course I dance to them. Every time. 

The album contains a lot of happy memories, and there are genuinely great moments. Some of the bass riffs and drum lines don’t get the credit they deserve, considering they were a band still very much in the learning stages. The album belongs to that time, but I rarely feel any need to revisit it now. I personally think a few of the songs, the singles have aged quite badly, and Certain Romance seems quite quaint now, and compared to their following album closers it doesn’t really stand up.

Revisiting it reminded me a lot of moments I’d forgotten about. The ending to Vampires is thrilling. Ritz to the Rubble sounds like just the end of the night and the following morning.

It is a great debut album. One of the best. It revolutionised British music, and was a mere glimpse into what they were to become. It had a lot of great songs. Great songs that were full of energy that you want from 4 mates being allowed to play music together for a living, yet personally at least, it doesn’t provide me with the same love some of their other albums give me.

Maybe I’m being harsh. Like the band, I’ve grown up, we all do (well most of us). Songs about rowing with a bouncer about entry into a club don’t entertain me in the way they did when I was that person rowing with a bouncer about getting into a club. Maybe I wish I still was!