For album number three it’s goodbye Sheffield and hello California. But has the arid desert dried up the Monkeys’ provincial charm? Clash finds out...
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In the interim since ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ - the Monkeys’ 2007-released second album which saw them consolidate the meatier side of their music - frontman Alex Turner took a side-step with The Rascals’ Miles Kane to have some fun as The Last Shadow Puppets. The duo’s symphonic pop was indebted to Scott Walker, Ennio Morricone and Love, and was about as majestic and lavish as the Monkeys were taut and sparse. Now, ‘Humbug’ is poised to confound the world, as the original Arctics seem to have picked up where the Puppets left off.
Having released ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ almost exactly a year after its predecessor, the Monkeys’ record-smashing debut ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, it rode on much of the same momentum and spirit, and felt a bit like a ‘part two’ album. Its themes had, of course, outgrown the social restraints of Sheffield, and reflected instead the band’s newfound success and worldly vision, but musically its foundations were still rooted in the sharp, relentless punk that defined their debut, merely hinting (in the haunting ‘Only Ones Who Know’ and the ambience of ‘505’) at the diversity that would follow. Its affinity with their debut prevented any ‘difficult second album’ allegations, but as they’ve expanded their palette much wider on ‘Humbug’, it certainly leaves them open to a deeper analysis - their experimentation has left them fully exposed. They don’t, however, seem worried.
The shape of things to come is encapsulated perfectly in the opening minute of first track ‘My Propellor’. Its restrained introduction is at odds with ‘Brianstorm’, its ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ counterpart - where that was thundering drums and relentless surf guitar, this is a more controlled, melodic beginning, which then gives way to the two most distinct features that dominate ‘Humbug’: the smoky trembling guitar and Alex Turner’s matured croon.
Turner, once celebrated for his breakneck reality bites, here develops his Sheffield twang into a dark, deep and hushed singing voice. It’s slightly disturbing - when he invites the listener to “have a spin of my propeller”, he actually sounds frightening. But it’s one that suits - he’s growing into his voice quite impressively.
Maturity has spread throughout the band, too. Rhythms and melodies collide on every song, with various exotic instrumentation (castanets at one point!) decorating the quartet’s foundation sound. While there are recognisable Monkeys moments - the frenetic and portentous ‘Potion Approaching’, the persistent and baiting ‘Pretty Visitors’ - the true appeal of ‘Humbug’ lies in the band’s growth in confidence, which sees them slowing things down, focusing more on their sound, on their lyrics and on the kaleidoscopic feel of the album as a whole. Lead single ‘Crying Lightning’ is carried by a rollicking fuzz bass and an insistent guitar that chimes like a haunted fairground ride, which, twinned with Turner’s caustic tongue - the charm of his lover’s “twisted and deranged” games soon repel him - is a stern warning never to get on the wrong side of this lot.
Scooby Doo would have a field day with ‘Humbug’. Not only do the song names sound like cartoon episode titles - ‘Secret Door’, ‘Dangerous Animals’ - but that spooky carnivalesque atmosphere permeates the album; there’s the recurring waltzer organ, the circus-like marching drums, and of course the bellowing ringmaster, luring us all into the dark and devilish delights of what’s in store. It would be fitting to put this down to the deviant production methods of Josh Homme, but one suspects that the ongoing partnership between the Monkeys and long-time producer James Ford (from Simian Mobile Disco) has made for an enviable self-assurance that radiates throughout ‘Humbug’.
It’s apparent in the melodic reverie of standout track ‘Cornerstone’. Everything about it just works: the soft thud of the drums, the underwater sound of the guitar, and, most especially, one of Alex Turner’s most concise and affecting tales to date. He begins with a case of mistaken identity - he misses his lover so much he thinks he keeps seeing her around: “I thought I saw you in the Battleship / But it was only a look-alike”. But his pining isn’t all innocent, as he approaches the girl anyway with an unusual request: “But my chances turned to toast / When I asked her if I could call her your name”. He makes the same mistake again in The Parrot’s Beak, before leaving in a taxi, whose seat belts carry his lover’s scent. We’re sympathetic to his yearning - right up until the final verse, when he finds salvation with his lover’s sister, who tells him: “You can call me anything you want”. Dirty bitch. It is expert storytelling set against a poignant backdrop, demonstrating perfectly Turner’s skill of creating an emotional impact.
‘The Jeweller’s Hands’ couldn’t be anything other than the final track. Its first line - “Fiendish wonder in the carnival’s wake” - relates especially well to the preceding thirty-five minutes, but the song continues its fiendishness throughout. Lyrics are pointed, scathing and fearsome, while the music escalates from menacing tranquillity into a reeling psychedelic whirl with a ghostly chorus ushering us out.
The heroic vision of the Monkeys has culminated in a brooding and dauntingly dark album, which is, from start to finish, their strongest and most accomplished work to date. Perhaps the endless vista of the desert did infiltrate their imaginations, or perhaps they were always destined for greatness. Either way, ‘Humbug’ is a triumph of courage and impudence, and one giant step forward for this country’s most impressive youngsters.