Hard to believe, but it is nearly four years since Arctic Monkeys were a precociously talented teenage quartet on the cusp of releasing the fastest selling U.K. debut album in history, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.”
Having effortlessly negotiated 2007’s followup “Favourite Worst Nightmare,” they now arrive at the notoriously difficult third album stage that has made many an established act come a cropper (try to remember Oasis’ “Be Here Now” without a shudder). How would Arctic Monkeys avoid the same fate?
Their answer was to leave their native Sheffield, England, relocate to the Californian desert and recruit Queens of the Stone Age front-man Josh Homme to produce an album that leaves behind any previous notion of everyman indie-pop sensibility, shifting emphasis onto dense, taut, muscular rock.
It is a startling transformation. Homme presides over eight tracks and his presence looms large, funneling the band’s iniquitous Sheffield humor through Californian stoner-rock.
There are times when this marriage works wonders, as the eerie, sprawling “Jeweller’s Hands” demonstrates. However, there are several unmemorable moments: the claustrophobic dirge of “The Fire and the Thud” symbolic of the lack of charm that ultimately undermines the musical progression.
A lighter touch is provided by the dreamy “Secret Door,” and singer Alex Turner’s lyrics are as unfailingly sharp as ever (“You puff your chest out like you never lost a war”). But though their experiment is to be lauded, Arctic Monkeys have fallen down the gap between their aspirations and the realization of their abilities.
“Humbug” is no disaster, just nothing more than an attempt at evolution that still needs fine-tuning.