Humbug | Arctic Monkeys

| Cadenza Reporter

Your average TV show runs at 24 frames per second, which is faster than your brain can register—fast enough to create the illusion of reality from a series of slightly different pictures. Following this philosophy, the Arctic Monkeys have, by hammering guitars and pummeling drums to such a blinding speed, transformed cheeky accounts of Sheffield pub-crawling into something more sensational.

Their first album, 2006’s “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” established the Arctic Monkeys as heir apparent to Britain’s long line of pop-punk kings. 2007’s “Favourite Worst Nightmare” was faster, stronger and more over the top than the debut: “Now that we’re here, we may as well go too far,” sings frontman Alex Turner on “This House is a Circus,” and Arctic Monkeys tracks have typically been divisible into two categories: those that are cranked up to 11 and those that are not.

No more.

With “Humbug,” the band’s first release in two years, the Arctic Monkeys seek a more comfortable, albeit darker, middle ground. The pop hooks that were once front and center now define a three-dimensional framework, one where Turner can settle in, wiggle around and unload his insults.

Gone, however, is the self-assured brat who asked, “Who wants to be men of the people when there’s people like you?” The new Alex Turner writes in code, his indignation modulated and complicated with masked lyrics that hint at previously unknown vulnerability. “I smelt your scent on my seatbelt, and kept my shortcuts to myself” he coos on “Cornerstone,” by far the album’s prettiest song.

But prettiness isn’t what the Arctic Monkeys are going for. The band recruited Josh Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age fame, to produce “Humbug” and to hold Turner’s hand as he dances with the dark. “I’ve got this ego mechanic, she’s always trying to give me vitamins,” he croaks on “Potion Approaching,” adrift among the fuzzed guitar riffs and echoed, ominous drums. Even the track’s last line—“Would you like me to build you a go kart?”—seemingly reminiscent of the sarcasm that defined their first two albums, falls flat; the rhythm collapses, pulling the rug from underneath both Turner and the possibility of returning to their old identity.

Which is not to say that they can’t do a good job of faking it. “What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?” Turner shouts on “Pretty Visitors,” whose verses, which hurdle to the ground at top speed, revel in that vintage Arctic Monkey insolence. The chorus, though, stocked with organs and surrealism, proves that such a return is short lived. Sure, the Arctic Monkeys can still scour the dance floor, but they seem to be much more at home in the attic.

For fans of: Bloc Party, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand

Tracks to download: ‘Cornerstone,’ ‘Crying Lightning,’ ‘Potion Approaching’