England’s Arctic Monkeys specialize in being clever. Everything, from vocalist Alex Turner’s wry delivery—you can practically see him give a knowing wink after singing each line—to his lyrical phrasing (spelling out words, Duran Duran references, sloganeering) reeks of calculation. Naturally, this arch tone can border on the precious, or, in the case of the band’s first two albums, result in serious listening fatigue. But on Humbug, the band’s third LP, the Monkeys largely smooth over their sharp-edged nods to XTC and The Libertines in favor of slower tempos and psych-twang melodies.
Turner has co-opted the mood and textures of his spaghetti-western side project, The Last Shadow Puppets, in the form of cowboy-loping riffs (“Crying Lightning”), spy-intrigue guitars dripping with reverb (“Dance Little Liar”) and an ominous lounge croon (“The Jeweller’s Hands”). These nuanced detours make typical Arctic Monkeys stompers like “Pretty Visitors”—an organ-burnished shot of adrenaline that borders on stoner-rock—and the Joy Division-ish tango “My Propeller” sound that much more vibrant. (They also even excuse “Cornerstone,” a blatant Morrissey rip-off.)
In the end, Humbug’s quality and diversity prove that the Arctic Monkeys have transcended the hype and trends around them.