The history of rock is full of “Eureka!” flashes of brilliance. Chuck Berry had the idea to fuse country with the blues. Bob Dylan took folk music electric. Nikki Sixx realized that the line “I’d say we’ve kicked some ass” could rhyme with “I’d say we’re still kickin’ ass.” For the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, the big light bulb idea came in 2005: Get huge by thinking small. Write scrappy little Brit-punk tunes about the humdrum town you’re stuck in, the pissy little pubs you can’t get into, the local girls who aren’t desperate enough to dance with you. Give your songs away on MySpace as fast as you can bang them out. Let your fans spread the word, bypass the usual promo machine and become a worldwide sensation before you turn 20. Even America embraced this band, despite the fact we don’t give a crap what “Mardy Bum” means.
It’s been four years since “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” But success has not brightened the Monkeys’ worldview. Their ace third album is full of Turner’s snide observations on human behavior – when he looks you in the eye and sneers, “What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?” it’s not a compliment. His specialty is still thinking small, noting the everyday details of how people work hard to screw up their lives. He gets into bars more easily now, but he spends too much time in them not having enough fun. The women who reject him only make him slightly less miserable than the ones who don’t. Even when he writes a soaring love ballad like “Cornerstone,” his idea of a romantic line is “I smelled her scent on the seat belt.”
The band has gotten heavier, talking up Black Sabbath as a source of inspiration, and it gets muscle from Queens of the Stone Age kingpin Josh Homme, who produced most of the tracks in the Mojave Desert. There’s more bottom-end crunch, with a lot of haunted-house organ and Bond-flick guitar twang. The tempos are slower; “Pretty Visitors” is the one track with the old full-speed-ahead punk charge. But the big difference is that Turner’s voice has deepened – now he flexes the ironic lounge-lizard croon that’s been the moneymaker for generations of Northern English wiseguys from Bryan Ferry to Morrissey to Jarvis Cocker. As in his side project, the Last Shadow Puppets, Turner plays with the role of a louche showbiz balladeer in gems like “Crying Lightning,” “Dance Little Liar” and “Potion Approaching,” stretching out his vowels to savor lines like “If I could be someone else for a week/I’d spend it chasing after you.”
Humbug’s, finest moment is “Cornerstone,” a mock Morrissey ballad where he stumbles from one seedy pub to another, running into girls who remind him of the one he’s trying to forget. It has the local color of the earliest Monkeys tunes, but it’s definitely grown-up, with bittersweet wit popping out of every line: “I thought I saw you in the Rusty Hook/Huddled up in a wicker chair/I wandered over for a closer look/And kissed whoever was sitting there.” He’s never written a song with this kind of punch before; he can’t pretend he’s still a sour teenager kicking around his hometown, but he also can’t pretend adulthood has solved any of his problems. May he remain this miserable for at least a few more albums.