With their first two full-length releases, Bristol-birthed band IDLES sent a gust of fresh air through the UK punk scene as ‘Brutalism’ and ‘Joy as an Act of Resistance’ ignited the spirits of fans of not only the genre, but music itself. Composed mainly of minimalist chord progressions and vocal melodies, what drew fans to IDLES was their bold lyrical bravery and impressive guitar tones, despite working in such a musically limiting genre. Anthems such as ‘Mother’ and ‘Well Done’ from their 2017 debut album served as perfect introductions to the fearlessness in frontman Joe Talbot’s lyrical content; the former opening with “My Mother works fifteen hours five days a week,” and the latter closing with “I’d rather bite my nose off / to spite my face.” It was the five-piece band’s 2018 sophomore record, however, that cemented their respectability and talent as both musicians and artistic-activists. Monumental tracks like the opener ‘Colossus’ and ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’ displayed an energetic progression of their sound, as they experimented with song structures, harmonies and more direct lyrics; the outro of the opener unapologetically shouts “I’m like Stone Cold Steve Austin / I put homophobes in coffins,” the first of Talbot’s excellently placed pop culture references scattered throughout the record.
With such an impressive discography after just two LPs, thrilling audiences perhaps became too repetitive for IDLES as the band have drastically changed the tone of their music for their third album, ‘Ultra Mono.’ With an approach that can only be considered as simplistic, the lyrical content of the record sometimes feels like it could truly be having us on. The opening track, ‘War’s’ “Clack-clack, clack-a-clang clang / That’s the sound of the gun going bang-bang” and the “Fee fee fie fie fo fo fum / I smell the blood of a million sons” found on the following track and Kenny Beats produced single, ‘Grounds’ could actually be insulting to those who gave the album more attention than it deserves.
Sure, it could be unfair to single out a couple of lines to represent the entire album, and it could be more unfair to say that they could have been written by a five-year-old, so I’ll refrain. It would be fair, however, to comment on the lyrical content as a whole that, unsurprisingly, was still being written in the booth as the band were recording the album. Pop-culture references that were so well intertwined into the themes of the previous two albums now feel wasted and thrown in for the sake of being relevant – I’m sure, if there was a theme to follow in ‘Ultra Mono’ that Talbot and the band could convince us that the lyrical simplicity is anything but lazy, but if being incredibly simple is the theme then the project gains little respect from the listener.
In being ultra mono, the record attempts to play to the strengths of what the band have been praised for in the past – a no frills, to-the-point approach to criticising the state and embracing the culture within working class communities. Yet IDLES have taken the no frills approach and applied it sonically, redacting whatever tones and effects that made their previous discography so lively. What’s a punk record without a bit of life? Ultra Mono.
Tracks such as the self-explanatory ‘Mr. Motivator’ and ‘Model Village’ rightfully served as the two other promotional singles for ‘Ultra Mono,’ as their energy and lyrical direction are much clearer as stand-alone works than their role in the album as a whole. The sum of ‘Ultra Mono’s parts is, sadly, less than the parts themselves. Talbot’s vocal delivery throughout the record is undeniably impressive, but on tracks such as ‘Anxiety,’ the iconic strength of the singer’s yell feels somewhat out of place. It’s here, at track 4, that the dreaded conversation of virtue signalling beckons, where Talbot and IDLES’ silence away from music on such issues sung about on the record is perhaps more aggressive than any name of a mental health condition that could be bellowed on a song. “I have got anxietyyyyy / It has got the best of meeeee,” the chorus yelps, yet two tracks before the frontman declares that “not a single thing has ever been mended / by you standing there and saying you’re offended” – the record seems to be somewhat unclear as to whether it wants to empathise with the vulnerable or not.
The second half of the album is scattered with dashes of highlights amongst a mostly forgettable sound (thanks to the – yes, I’ll say it – stupid ‘Ultra Mono’ theme of the record). ‘Reigns’ is written with smart wordplay that satisfies that whole song. Rhyming reigns with (blue blooded) veins, as the monarchy reigns over us, “pulling our reigns,” credit is due to a very well-crafted song and critique of the British empire. Laziness, however, prevails once again, as Talbot describes the hardships imposed on the working class as being “shanked into dust,” – questionable wording to say the least. While the album finishes on what could have been a high were it not for shamelessly ripping off the late Daniel Johnston’s most popular song, the penultimate track redeems some qualities that could have shone throughout; unafraid of lengthening a melody and vocal performance to over five minutes, ‘A Hymn’ is layered with life. With a haunting, unavoidable refrain, Talbot mutters “I wanna be loved / Everybody does,” over a slow burning progression of guitar chords and a live drum performance. We can love Talbot all we want, but at track 10, it might be too late to love the album.
Cover Art by Jake Purkiss