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Humbug

In some quarters, Arctic Monkeys are a sort of second coming of The Beatles, The Kinks, Joy Division and The Smiths combined - an authentically-British, regional, literate, and above all first-class band. Gordon Brown and Simon Armitage (and a handful of models) are among their best-known fans. Andrew Duncan, in his latest book, raises the question, how is that pop lyrics are popular, when poetry, which is often like pop lyrics, isn't? The answer, which he does not offer, might be: music. As poets are tired of hearing themselves say, poems are lyrics with the music in-built - poets are one-man or one-woman bands. Armitage is among those careful to delineate the subtle knife that divides a song by Morrissey or Alex Turner from a poem by Geoffrey Hill or Carol Ann Duffy. Duncan, when trying to ascertain the points of difference between "mainstream" and "avant-garde" poems (his terms), doesn't make enough of the ear/eye distinctions between traditional lyric poems that use verbal music, and text-based, "hyperliterate" works that are often more designed for direct intake by the eye-to-brain axis.

The third coming of AM is Humbug, produced, recorded and engineered in sunny America, mainly by Queens of the Stone Age main man Josh(ua) Homme. That this seems an absurd mix of tones would be like saying that who would have expected Elvis Costello to hook up with T. Bone Burnett. Turner is not as good a lyricist as Morrissey (nobody is) but he can turn some phrases that, at least, are more elliptical and strange than your average songsmith - but this time around his wry laddish chip-shop wit has been dulled by too-obvious sexual wordplay just a step above the cunning linguist level, and a few too-many references to circuses and dangerous animals. His tropes suggest he's been listening to The Doors, and seeking a cabaret volta to turn his words to darker subjects, mainly, it seems, pill-box hat types and other hangers-on, as well as devil women who would put him under heel, cracking the whip in furs.

The music is an about face too - these are harder, lurid, and often theatrical rock songs, and The Doors, and other 60s freaks hang over the proceedings; Homme adds his trademark sense of heaviness.

Turner's voice sounds irritatingly twee and faux-English at times, a Herman's Hermit singing over something close to Metallica, or at least, Nirvana (Serve the Servants?). I admire this attempt to do something new but also familiar, this hybridity - U2 did it with Joshua Tree, only much better. Still, Humbug has some very good, persuasive songs, that are louche, genuinely sinister, and the attitude of darkness is beguiling, if not entirely becoming. What seems a little lacking is either exact sexual candour (how wild is their wild new life?) or irony (are they just embracing Brooklyn point blank, or at an angle of repose?). Never are the lyrics less than sly, and rarely satiric or cutting.

This is unlike the other two AM albums - which is good, because the second is dull rubbish, and the first was a tour-de-force by wunderkinds who have now moved on. It remains to be seen whether the Arctic Monkeys are merely a spent force like The Strokes - a very early 00 group whose day has come and gone - or the next Radiohead or Coldplay - British bands able to break America and sustain a career for decades.
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