Overall Score: 6/10 Musicianship: 8/10 Creativity: 7/10 Lyrics: 4/10 Pros: IDLES have broken through to a new level of excellence in their musicality Cons: Joe Talbot's performance and a great deal of lyrics let proceedings down
“They might just be Britain’s most necessary band” said Dave Simpson in The Guardian when reviewing Joy as an Act of Resistance, the second full-length LP from Bristolian anti-punk punk band IDLES. The fervour surrounding this motley crew of rambunctious and incendiary spirits reached a fever pitch when they performed supposedly generation defining sets at Glastonbury festival and on Later… with Jools Holland. This post-punk permeation into the mainstream decades after its inception and heyday has taken some by surprise. The infiltration seems to have legs in the success of fellow contemporaries, Fontaines D.C., as well as underground sleeper hits from Bambara and I Like Trains. So it seems IDLES have kickstarted a renewed passion for the genre, a Nirvana moment in British mainstream music as aggressive, witty guitar music tops end of year lists from critics all too ready to dismiss the humble six-string. The voice of a generation?
Brooding and bleaker than its predecessor, Ultra Mono smartly does not relish in football chant choruses as heard on Never Fight a Man with a Perm, Danny Nedelko or Rottweiler. This darker tone serves the record well as we hear a follow up that shows a band maturing into their sound and finding a new niche to show themselves as more than a one trick pony, musically at least. The central performance of the record however drastically lets everything down.
Joe Talbot barks in his limited register throughout, never settling into any memorable melodies but instead attempting to bludgeon the listener with a voice that just falls short of menacing but has an unrestrained feeling of ire. This wrathful delivery is his ace in the hole, and something he is better suited to as when he does foray into melodic delivery on Mr. Motivator, he stretches his vocal abilities to just beyond their limit sounding strained and tone deaf.
When you think of the great singers in rock, virtuosity isn’t a necessity. What matters is character. Talbot is certainly a dichotomous cheeky chappy, on the one hand a lager lout given a microphone to rile up a frenzied crowd of Dark Fruits Twitter “intelligentsia”, on the other a genuinely compassionate and considered frontperson with biting satirical lyrics. He has a great deal of character, so broadly gets a pass on performance.
When he stumbles on Ultra Mono however, he does so spectacularly with lyrics comparable to GSCE poetry – ‘I’ve got anxiety/ It has got the best of me’ – and outright pathetic attempts at making noises to substitute rhyming couplets – ‘Wah-CHING/ That’s the sound of the sword going in’. Charm and confidence don’t make up for a lack of wit, and it’s clear from the approach to lyric writing – here writing whilst in studio rather than through any form of demoing material – that Talbot is not nearly the generation defining intellectual he has been painted as by the press.
The lyrics on this album jump from coverage of IDLES’ detractors – they don’t care about critics’ opinions so much that they wrote a song about it. Honest, they couldn’t give a monkeys – to their brand of socio-political observations of austerity, the bloody history of the British empire, bigotry and how posh people tend to live in pristine-on-the-surface villages. This latter track, Model Village, might just be the worst thing the five-piece have put their name to, and on Ultra Mono there is stiff competition. However, the lyrics across the record aren’t deplorable. There are many, many moments to pick out and dismiss as rubbish, but every ‘clacka-clang-clang’ has a considered counterpart – see A Hymn – that offers an alternative outlook to what can initially be perceived as cack.
The most glaring issue with this album is that it is so achingly well intentioned, so desperate to be seen as a great scrutiny of contemporary society’s ills, but has feels so deeply dumb and reductive that it ends up falling flat on its face as the kind of idiotic discourse you’d see on social media. There’s an argument to be made that this nursery rhyme approach to lyricism is to appeal to a broader audience without diluting their message. Fair point, but why should IDLES get a pass to reduce their lyrics to a childish scrawl when Rage Against the Machine, Run the Jewels and Clt Drp have worked so hard to make their statements eloquent? Surely a punk band should have more confidence in their audience to understand what they’re getting at. Dumbing it all down even further than before feels like a slap in the face, a sneering holier than thou attitude from the quintet.
However, it’s not all bad. Adam ‘Dev’ Devonshire gives a sterling, driving performance as the band’s backbone with thunderous, distorted bass riffs leading the charge on War and Grounds. He is the beacon of brilliance on an otherwise disappointing record. In fact, musically this is some of IDLES’ finest work. Kill Them With Kindness and Carcinogenic are bolstered by fine performances all round, with histrionic squalling guitars and percussion pounded with indignation creating a chaotic bed for Talbot’s aggro ranting.
You’ve got to feel for IDLES. They’ve been heralded as this great unifier of the tribes, as a voice for the downtrodden, as the best of a musical generation. With such a weight on them, ever likely they would trip and fall. There is no pleasure in witnessing this minor misstep. To say the party is over would be horrendously over the top, the kind of jibe that a pseudo-intellectual rag obsessed with its own underground status would make, but it certainly feels as though a dampener has been put on proceedings. Britain’s most necessary band no longer? If you want something aggressive and socially cognisant, then there are albums out there better than Ultra Mono.
This is a record primed for hipsters in craft beer bars and award show attendees to misunderstand as some great genius work that rallies against all that is wrong in society, but don’t you dare let them take a look at themselves and realise that their white, middle-class comfort might just be contributing to the seemingly exponential daily societal divisions. That wouldn’t be a nice thing to do, would it? This, whether they like it or not, is the audience IDLES are helping to cultivate; the entitled, smug, sanctimonious, performatively woke people who tweet out their political manifesto but then lack the gumption to act on it. The kinds of people who think that listening to Brutalism and Joy… is some form of serious political activism. The kinds of people who think Have I Got News For You is a bit too left wing. You know those people are out there, and you can be damn sure they’ll be listening to Ultra Mono.
IDLES’ Ultra Mono is out September 25th via Partisan Records.