Arctic Monkeys – Humbug

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It’s amazing how you can both capture a sound perfectly and have no idea what to do with it. The problem with Humbug isn’t that it’s a departure. They didn’t sounded too excited about the Dance-Punk sound in the previous album anyway. The problem isn’t necessarily the lack of hooks because plenty of records can survive without hooks.

The problem is they’re playing a form of psychedelia that relies on melodies. Psychedelic music is often melodic and accessible. It uses weird sounds along with an easy melody to make something both weird and accessible. That’s why “Tomorrow Never Knows” is so popular (or at least covers of it).

This is not the Heavy Psych that blasts off to outer space. It’s closer to “Planet Caravan” and Monster Magnet’s ballads. These songs were brilliant because their sound enchanted already great melodies. “Planet Caravan” would’ve been nothing if the melody wasn’t sound so close to the lonely Bluegrass style.

“Crying Lightning” is the best song here for that reason. It’s one of the few here that actually has a chorus. The fact that it progresses and reaches a conclusion is just a bonus. It has a catchy melody that benefits from the sound. Turner drops words like ‘twisted and deranged’ which are perfect for this music.

Everything else, however, tries too hard to be ominious. The band is obsessed with beeing spooky. Turner stopped being a sex-mad smug asshole. Maybe it has something to do with erectile dysfunction. On “My Propeller”, he lets us know in the climatic bridge that he can’t get hard. Such issues affect a man, especially one who bragged about having sex with girls he doesn’t like.

That song sums up the album well. It has no chorus. The chorus has Turner whispering “have a spin of my propeller” not in a sexy manner. It’s as if he’s standing behind your back in a haunted house. It sounds pathetic because it’s such an obvious technique to make you look scary.

Or maybe it’s actually about drugs. That’s a better explanation of the rest of the songs. They sound druggy in a good way. The guitar licks and rolling drums in that sound like a calm before the storm. They can’t keep the atmosphere for long. It’s not even good enough for the song which saved by its catchy climax.

There are other tricks, many of them impressive and none of them are enough. “Pretty Visitors” has tempos shifts and thudding drums that are coming after you. The sound effects in “Secret Door” are supposed to fit the title, but too bad the melody is uninspired. Turner doesn’t even sound like he’s singing an actual melody but just mumbles things.

The sound fails mainly because it doesn’t serve the songs. The end of “My Propeller” and “Crying Lightning” would sound much worse in any other sound. Instead of sounding seductive, Turner sounds like a desperate and perhaps dangerous addict on the latter song.

On all the other songs, it just makes for a ‘huh, that’s cool’ reaction. They sound like demos, ideas that are worth attempting but are so new to the band that they’re only worthwhile for a B-Side compilation. The lack of confidence isn’t just because the band moved from the loud Dance-Punk. It’s because they have no idea what to do with the sound, even if it sounds cool.

Smack in the middle of this album you get the gorgeous “Cornerstone”. It’s a ballad that’s closer to “505”. The band has a fuzzy relationship with ballads. Turner is too arrogant to get them right but when they get it, they made brilliant ones. “Cornerstone” is one of those. It’s sad that this song got buried here. “Crying Lightning” at least makes everything around it worth attempting. “Cornerstone” should’ve been on the better next album.

It’s an interesting album and a stepping stone for the band. Their later albums proved they still got it in them and they were just confused. I’m sure this sounded worse when it came out. Albums like these are either a death sentence or a stepping stone to a new era. The Monkeys haven’t outdone their debut (and probably never will), but this sounds much better in retrospect, when you know they got over this confusion.

2.5 cornerstones out of 5

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Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor

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The progress of shock artists is hilarious. Both Marilyn Manson and Eminem rose at the same time. Both were attacked for ruining America’s youth. Both had huge commercial and critical success, although the white rapper was more favoured. On the surface, it’s obvious. Eminem’s dexterity, great rhymes and the occasional depth is out in the open. Marilyn Manson was equally good, perhaps better, but on the surface all he had was noise. You’d expect Manson to run out of ideas quicker, but the fact more people care about Eminem in 2015 doesn’t mean much. Manson has expanded his sound, while Eminem is still trying to shock people with dissing female pop stars.

The Pale Emperor is the ideal record for a middle-aged shock rocker. It reveals Manson didn’t set out to shock for shock’s sake. His shocking image would have been there even if it hadn’t got him the attention. The Pale Emperor‘s themes and style sounds less shocking in comparison only because it’s 2015, and Manson doesn’t feel like making so much noise. He’s more into the blues that he explored in The High End of Low and big, stomping drums.

His blues is closer to Five Horse Johnson than Led Zeppelin, meaning it actually sounds like blues. Manson borrow not just the structure of blues but its atmosphere. He managed to re-create the grittiness and desolation of Blind Willie Johnson, although with a different purpose. This may sound like an attempt to move forward, but instead it’s just a middle-aged aritsts indulging in what he likes because he doesn’t care anymore. More than any other Manson record, The Pale Emperor sees him not trying to say anything.

It’s not a first for Manson, but this lack of concept acted differently in Golden Age and High End of Low. Golden Age was a break from making ambitious albums, but it was still full of noise and hooks. High End of Low was a break from being a rock star, which allowed Manson to throw himself at any crazy idea because he doesn’t owe anybody anything. The Pale Emperor just sees him kicking some bluesy rock and that’s it. It doesn’t hint at any future.

Once you get used to the blues rock, there are no more experiments. The Pale Emperor coasts along, delivering catchy hooks over stomping drums. Manson’s lyrics are still there, and he still tries any wordplay he can think of (“I can’t tell if you wear me out/or wear me well”), but it doesn’t aim at any big picture. Only “Killing Strangers” sounds like it has a message, but Manson decides not to hammer it in. “Deep Six” is a throwback to Golden Age and Holy Wood, but it’s played with nostalgia, not with excitement of new sounds

On paper, it sounds bad. It would sound boring if any artists made such an album, but an album like this from Manson sounds worse. On record, it’s great. It’s not his best, and it’s not trying but every track here works. “Deep Six” is just as good as his old material, and “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge” and “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles” are just as good as their titles. He seemed to have lost the knack for ballads, because “Odds of Even” and “Warship My Wreck” are saved only because Manson plays them. The track that defines the album is “The Devil Beneath My Feer”. Manson never sounded so carefree and happy. It could easily be covered by Neon Trees or Grouplove.

The Pale Emperor is the one record that outsiders may enjoy the most from Manson. The shocking part was the least likeable element, and now that he threw it away what remained was an entertaining rock album. He probably won’t drop another classic, but if he still sounds like he’s got some more hooks and cool song titles in him.

3 emperors out of 5