Why would Arctic Monkeys, perched high atop the U.K. pop-music food chain, want to evolve into a different animal? The Sheffield group was almost too big for England’s small-pond scene from the beginning, setting a record for the country’s fastest-selling debut album with 2006′s mood-stricken mod-rock opus Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. But the Oasis-sized accolades mostly remained on one side of the Atlantic, as U.S. audiences failed to connect the hype to a hit — nary a “Wonderwall” or “Song 2″ happened for the Monkeys with the debut or their hasty 2007 follow-up, Favourite Worst Nightmare. So when singer/guitarist Alex Turner’s pale, peacoat-wearing crew decamped to the California desert to record half of their third album Humbug with Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme as producer, the subtext seemed to be writ large: muscle up the cheeky guitar-pop bounce found on U.K. hits such as the Duran Duran-quoting “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” and make it sound good on American rock radio and summer-shed stages.
One listen to Humbug, however, and it all unravels into a far simpler plot. Arctic Monkeys seriously dig Queens of the Stone Age, and Humbug is an aural postcard from Homme’s Joshua Tree studio: the queasy guitar bends on “Potion Approaching” are directly descended from the Queens’ “3′s And 7′s,” and the military-march rhythms and squonking, brutish guitars make “Pretty Visitors” sound like a spooky outtake from Lullabies To Paralyze. The best tracks here, however, borrow only as much as they need from Homme — a mosquito-buzz guitar solo on “Crying Lightning,” for example, or the hallucinogenic power-ballad vibe of “Fire and the Thud” — without surrendering their British passports. And the charm of the band remains with the forked-tongue wit of Turner, who’s part hopeless romantic and part wolf at the door; on “Cornerstone” the protagonist is so obsessed with a girl that he goes around asking other ladies, “Please, can I call you her name?” (He ends up with the girl’s sister.) Homme agreed to work with the Monkeys on account of Turner’s superb lyricism — think a purplish Jarvis Cocker or a less direct Ray Davies — and his delivery is impressive, turning tight corners around the cocksure riffs and burying dense prose (“Like a butler pushing on a bookshelf/I’m unveiling the unexpected”) whenever he finds enough space. Humbug isn’t likely to endear Arctic Monkeys to mainstream America, nor will it appease the band’s Britpop fanbase. Instead, it’s the kind of dark-horse experiment that could turn a formerly featherweight buzz band into a heavyweight contender.