With very little ado about something, Arctic Monkeys have quietly sent the world a five-song “Web Transmission”, offered as a preview of their forthcoming third album, entitled Humbug. With much-analysed trips to the Mojave Desert, and a length of time spent in the company of a certain Mr. Josh Homme, the band have certainly raised expectations a notch – whereas no-one realised what a change of style Favourite Worst Nightmare would herald, the general perception of Humbug is that it’s not exactly going to be eleven re-treads of “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor”. Lead single “Crying Lightning” confirmed this: four minutes of eerie, muggy and fuzzy desert rock, with siren-like guitars wailing behind Alex Turner’s typically evocative lyrics (this time with added confectionery!).
The webcast, then. There’s nothing too spontaneous about this – Radiohead’s Scotch Mist this certainly is not. The band are silhouetted in a shadowy warehouse environment, with numerous video screens showing looped close-up footage of a woman’s eyes. Now blessed with an additional fifth musician on-stage, contributing additional guitar and keyboards, the band launch into “Pretty Visitors”, where a carnival organ collides with jagged guitars. The chorus locks into a loping waltz, before a second guitar kicks in halfway through with kind of Queens Of The Stone Age-style slide work that we have come to expect. Then it’s back to the spooky waltz for the outro. The song is sprawling in its ambition, and yet tight in its musicianship – the perfect opening salvo, I suppose.
Next, the band tackle “Crying Lightning”, with a rendition that is less dependent on that intense, brain-mashing bass, and more open to improvisation with the desert-y wailing guitar. My reactions so far to Turner’s vocals are that he’s not so much singing, as attempting a kind of lurching, viscous style of rapping. Throughout, he remains resolutely sombre and dark – one has to wonder how such a tortured and complex individual tessellates so well with Alexa Chung.
The third song, which is called “Potion Approaching”, begins in a simple manner, with a repetitive, chugging riff on both guitar and bass. This whining, strangled lead guitar sound shows no sign of abating, and it’s difficult to compare it to anything else except the majority of Lullabies To Paralyze. A sludgy, psych-y refrain boasting the portentous lyrics “Yours is the only ocean that I want to hang onto” leads into a slowed-down, glammy bridge, and then back to the original chug.
Now, here comes a real highlight, as Arctic Monkeys treat us to their cover of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”, with its Jarvis Cocker-esque lyrics that speak of viaducts, mills and stacks. The organ is mournful, and a humid middle section eventually explodes into an angry, angry outro.
The final song, for which I have no name, sadly, is a beauty. Beginning with a plinky piano intro, over which Alex Turner adds some wonderfully appropriate guitar, it alternates between a pretty, dance-y beat, and a half-speed Scott Walker ballad, with starry-eyed melodies and coo-ing backing vocals. And then, far too quickly, it’s all over, and the screen cuts to black.
First impressions? It’s not such a huge step away from the more sinister second half of Favourite Worst Nightmare as the Chinese whispers would have us believe. There’s a lot of organ, of a variety more akin to The Doors than The Horrors; the lead guitar tone appears to be fixed on a sound last heard wailing through Queens Of The Stone Age at their most tortured; and of course, Matt Helders’ drumming is characteristically enviable. The general ambition displayed in the songwriting is definitely a step forward, with sprawling song structures and a lot of effort being paid to making each minute of each song different from the last. Undoubtedly, Humbug is going to be more of a grower than its two predecessors – in all likelihood, it will alienate some of the band’s least intellectually-minded fans. Which is no bad thing, judging by the typical crowd at an Arctic Monkeys gig. I suppose the hope must be that some impressionable young people who got into Arctic Monkeys as a gateway into indie music will hear the sophisticated craft of Humbug and use it as a gateway into a whole host of interesting and challenging rock music, which the band is clearly locked into right now. I’m going to have to wait till August 24th, when the album is released, but I do think I’m going to like it, as a uniquely dark and turmoil-filled creature.