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.