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IDLES are a breath of fresh air in much of modern music, in punk and rock most certainly. In a landscape of depression and increasingly individualized song topics, it’s refreshing to see a band state proudly that they refuse to fall into pessimistic cynicism. They do all of this whilst criticizing society-scale issues without engaging in the performative “well, everything is dumb so fuck society” punk rock clichés that John Roderick writes about in Punk Rock is Bullshit.
In terms of broad frames to view the modern world through, on new album ‘Ultra Mono‘ IDLES are largely continuing what they started on ‘Joy As An Act of Resistance‘ (2018); asserting positive masculinity and a sense of earnestness and happiness in response to the overwhelming cynicism that pervades everything we do. Ursula Le Guin wrote in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas that ‘we have a bad habit […] of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting’. It’s the job of the artist, then, to go beyond that. Dark and gritty used to be subversive, but now it’s far more subversive to say “fuck you, I’m going to be myself without a shred of irony. That could practically be IDLES’ mission statement!
Like they did on ‘Joy As An Act of Resistance,’ the band take a scattershot approach to lyrical ideas, meaning every song on ‘Ultra Mono‘ has a different theme the group wish to cover, even if the overarching theme is positive self-affirmation. On ‘Grounds’, IDLES manage to thread the needle between criticizing liberal identity politics while also advocating for broad racial justice. The second verse begins with the lines:
“Not a single thing has ever been mended
By you standing there and saying you’re offended“
Which is practically red meat for conservatives and other people that want to obfuscate the issues of historical and structural racism and turn them into debates on welfare and “black culture”. (Because my brain is broken, I pretty much always traverse the depths of YouTube comment sections, seeing the worst takes.) On this particular song, there were at least a few people who seemed to pay attention to these lines alone when it first released as a single, dusting off their hands and saying “well, IDLES aren’t as liberal as I thought”. They’re right, of course, but that’s because IDLES are instead advocating for leftist identity politics based on solidarity.
“There’s nothing brave and nothing useful
You scrawling your aggro shit on the walls of the cubicle
Saying my race and class ain’t suitable
So I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful“
Rather than engaging in the oppressive Vampire Castle bullshit of Twitter moralizing that only sets people apart through the passive aggressive weaponization of guilt, the band stand for working together with people and fighting for the same goals. Which is the grounds (sorry) that ‘Grounds‘ stands firm and proud on.
IDLES generally focus on issues going on all over the English-speaking world, but ‘Model Village’ is England-centric, discussing the specific kinds of idyllic, provincial, semi-rural lifestyle and the racist, homophobic, and uncritically-nationalist thinking that it tends to create. It’s a lyrically and musically repetitive song to fully drive home it’s point. I’ve been listening to a podcast from England called TrashFuture (strongly recommend). One show they do is called “Britainology”, where they go over certain types of British person and the weird shit they do. ‘Model Village‘ is doing something similar:
“They ain’t too friendly in the village
There’s a tabloid frenzy in the village
“He’s not a racist, but”, in the village
Gotta drive half-cut in the village“
It’s a punk rock snapshot of suburbia straight out of the Stepford Wives. Reinforcing the England-centric lyrics is the song’s reference to ‘gammon’, a term that’s popped up in the last few years in the U.K. as a synecdoche for the mass of middle-aged white dudes who just want to “get Brexit done”, as the Tory election slogan went.
“Just give them an anthem and they’ll sing it
Still they don’t know the meanings in it
Just saluting flags ’cause it’s British
Idiot spirits think they’re kindred“
All of this reminds of The League of Gentlemen, whose recurring story focused around two shop owners on the edge of the small fictional town of Royston Vasey, who effectively guard the town from anyone who isn’t local, even though tourists coming into the town would be good for business. This culminates in them violently driving away road workers who are planning a highway going into the town. Obviously a caricature of provincial English regionalism that you’d find in places with names like “Stoke-upon-Trent” or “Beans-upon-toast”. We most certainly don’t lack this kind of uncritical nationalism in Australia, but you can’t really take a song like ‘Model Village‘ out of its specific cultural and political context.
One of the rare times the band’s lyrics don’t entirely work out for me is on ‘Carcinogenic’. On this song, while the arrangement is good, the band identify issues yet never offer anything useful, or anything that fits into the idea of societal cancer that the title is going for.
“Cramming people into high-rises
While selling their welfare for low prices
Public spending gets big slices
While ignoring the true crisis
Where were you when the ship sank?
Probably not queuing for food banks
Probably waving your Union Jack
Probably rallying for new tanks
Probably to blow up the ice caps
Because the lunatics have taken over the asylum“
This verse is uncontroversial to anyone even slightly left of centre, but the chorus offers little in the way of fighting all this. All it actually says is “You’re gone when you’re gone, so love what you can“. Compared to most of the band’s lyrics, this is pretty limp-wristed. On one hand, ‘Carcinogenic‘ has all the descriptive things that I like: neoliberalism and nationalism are cancers that are destroying society. But unlike most of the band’s songs, there’s no real sense of anything you can do about it all. “Love what you can” certainly fits in with the overall assertively positive message of the band, but I don’t think it’s enough to talk about how miserable everything is and then say “oh well, power of positive thinking”. Even a metaphorical solution relating to the whole “cancer” topic would be relevant, but the band don’t even follow that to anything resembling a conclusion. Feeling like a missed opportunity for them, like the song’s message is unfinished.
There’s less to say about the musicianship on ‘Ultra Mono‘. That’s not to say it’s bad of course, because it’s not! For the most part, the music accompanies the lyrics rather than the other way around. Singer Joe Talbot insisted in a 2017 interview that IDLES aren’t a post punk bank, and while I don’t know if the band see themselves as more of a post-punk band now three years on, their sound certainly seems that way. In the very same interview, Talbot identifies some key influences in the heavier side of modern post punk; bands like Ice Age, Protomartyr, and METZ. But this album brings out some of post-punk’s lighter influences as well. The last song, ‘Danke’, starts with a pointed, janky riff that sounds like early Franz Ferdinand, and the main riff to the aforementioned ‘Model Village’ has an urgent start-stop kind of rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place in Arctic Monkeys’ early (i.e. better) work.
Overall though, I’d be more inclined to compare it to Parquet Courts in the general ethos that they aim for. Not that the band sounds like Parquet Courts per se, but that like that other band, IDLES go for simple riffs that allow the lyrics to take centre stage.
‘Ultra Mono‘ does see the band mixing up their sound somewhat. The opening riff in ‘Grounds’ isn’t electronic, but it might as well be, what with it’s higher-pitched, bleeping tone that repeats through much of the track. More than that though, the second half of the song’s verses has some saxophone in it. Strangely enough, sounding like early Swans. (But that might just be me.) ‘Reigns’ has a seriously driving rhythm section that sounds practically like a krautrock track, but the leads are sinister and brooding and make for a solid combination. Meanwhile, ‘A Hymn’ is the closest thing the band could do to a post-rock type of song, which is fitting, since it’s about the day-to-day, which wouldn’t fit the powerful instrumentation they usually go for. It also includes more intimate, melodic singing from Joe Talbot, rather than the aggressive,, fist-raised shouting he usually adopts.
‘Ultra Mono’ sees IDLES refining their philosophy of aggressive self-affirmation, while continuing their scattershot approach to a wide variety of lyrical themes – political climates, pro-feminism, class struggles (‘Reigns’), mental health, toxic masculinity, and fame. While it has one or two songs that don’t completely blow me away as much as the esteemed rest do (‘Anxiety,’ ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’, intentionally incorrect French grammar for “don’t touch me”), I cannot deny the awesome punk rock staying power that exists across much of this record. Both musical and lyrical.
Kill Them With Kindness
Ne Touche Pas Moi (feat. Jehnny Beth of Savages)
‘Ultra Mono’ is out now: