Bristolian “don’t call us punk” rockers IDLES are back for thirds. Previous offerings, 2017’s debut Brutalism and 2018’s crowning achievement Joy As An Act of Resistance were two different approaches to the same fight, except one came with a bat, and the other just an unhinged smile.
They know their niche well. They deconstruct the world as it is presented to them, approaching politics, the plight of the working class, issues concerning sex and gender… anything you could remotely think of being a hot topic will probably get the treatment from red-faced, moustachioed frontman Joe Talbot and crew. So for as much as we know what they’re likely to discuss on third LP Ultra Mono, one question remains: with what will they be armed this time?
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‘War’ is ballistic, of course. The riffs sprint headlong and the drums are sonic grenades. The irritating “that’s the sound of” motif debuts here (Joe spends much of the album narrating as if reading a children’s book, hurling around onomatopoeias and seemingly incapable of decent metaphor) but regardless, a pretty fun and bouncy opening.
‘Grounds’ vouches for atmosphere over anarchy, with instrumental parts ducking and diving as they please, until the beating chorus of “I am I, unify” rains down. Sign me up for more of this mood building. ‘Mr Motivator’ disappoints; then, now, always. The runt of the singles, the paranoid, over-shoulder looking seems ridiculous and out of place back-to-back with something the strength of ‘Grounds’. Carry on in that vein!
Instead, the band fuss over their detractors, attempting to seem unphased by leaning into things like “cliches” and rally cries. Writing a “fuck you” song is still writing a song… that doesn’t strike me as the most unphased move. Also, when will artists learn? ‘Deliberate’ bad writing won’t make something any less bad!
‘Anxiety’ is textbook IDLES. The earthy bass skulking, drums on a fuse wire, and somehow Talbot’s louder than all of it, screaming his throat hoarse as he does. The yabbering gang vocals and tempo change following the second chorus send you home with some of the title yourself.
Jamie Cullum on keys introduces us to ‘Kill Them With Kindness’. There’s a Son House reference that goes down a treat, but my god is there some iffy lyricism here: “Your hum-drum, sarky slow lines don’t bother me none / “Wa-wa-wa, woo-woo-woo” said the flower to the sun / Our love-locked congregation gift will get you slapped / “Gna na na na na gnaw”, said the beaver to the dam”. Right. Still, the trucking guitar line will get the foot tapping.
‘Model Village’ pictures “nine-fingered boys” and “gammon” in an all-but-charming little, well, anywhere. Talbot resents this microcosmic Britain, and reduces rightwingers/the rich/the nearly completely circular Venn diagram to cliché and buzzword. His voice cracking slightly while yelling “I don’t care about your rose garden” at the top of his lungs is hysterical.
‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’ features recently announced support act Jehnny Beth of Savages. It’s a great message but I don’t see this song breaking the clubs it was, I guess, ‘intended’ for(?). Either way, keep your hands to your fucking self, people.
‘Carcinogenic’ has a splash of alt-rock I wasn’t anticipating. “Where we were you when the ship sank? Probably not queueing at the food bank” is delivered with teeth so gritted, they risk snapping from the gums. The cutting PSA-style, as well as the latter call-and-answer portion of the track look lovingly towards Damaged-era Black Flag… I’m never going to take issue with that.
‘Reigns’ might be the most complete sounding track they’ve ever put to tape. Despite the simplicity of the lyrics and theme, the pulsating guitar, hyperactive bassline and behemoth chorus arrangement make for indefinite replay value.
‘The Lover’ starts off promising, with a sort-of lighter-swaying 80’s goth guitar tone, before WHAT THE HELL ARE WE DOING BACK HERE? “You say you don’t like my clichés / Our sloganeering and our catchphrase / I say, love is like a freeway, and… / Fuck you, I’m a lover”. Whatever damage control you thought you had to do earlier seems obsessive now. The most vitriolic of your critics won’t even have been this far through your album, why are you still trying to fight them? “I want to cater to the haters/ eat shit.” A loving sentiment, for sure.
On ‘A Hymn’, we get to grips with happiness, lack thereof, the pursuit and the reality: “I lost ten pounds for the wedding, I played happy ’til my teeth hurt / Sofa surfer extraordinaire, Lambert’s ash in my falling hair”. This is the open-chest vulnerability IDLES have been so vocal about demonstrating, and I wish they’d spent more time on cuts like this. Fantastic track.
Light on lyrics but huge on energy, closer ‘Danke’ borrows from Daniel Johnston’s ‘True Love Will Find You in the End’, and slaps that loan over a twister of sirens and kindred sounds. “I am I” is the stage bow before curtains, and you have to give kudos to a thematic tie-up.
My main hang-up about this record is that IDLES battle their identity far too much on it. Let’s face it, you’re unlikely to stumble across IDLES. They’re not the most accessible, lowest-common-denominator-subject-matter band on the market. Chances are, you’re looking for this kind of stuff.
I think canonising criticism of your art into your art is a bit of an off-putting move for newer fans, who honestly probably won’t mind the banner waving and slogan toting. As for the faithful? Very fucking aware of Talbot’s love to wield a short, sharp adage that’d fit on an edgy fridge magnet. No worries then.
I never imagined a context whereby I would put these words together, but IDLES have gone full Taylor Swift. Never go full Taylor Swift. Just make what you want to make. Unashamedly. No asterisk. I can’t promise I’ll enjoy it solely based on that, but… I’ll definitely respect it more.
It pains me to say, but this is a weak moment in an otherwise blinding run for the group – but I’d still recommend that you have a go at ‘Grounds’, ‘Model Village’, ‘Reigns’, ‘A Hymn’, and ‘Danke’.
Ultra Mono is out now from Partisan.