31 August, 2018 / Bristol, UK
In March of 2017, IDLES exploded onto (and subsequently out of) the British punk scene thanks to their caustic debut LP, Brutalism: a blistering take-no-prisoners barrage against all of the dingiest corners of the UK. This included, but was not limited to, life in the southwestern city of Exeter, the throes of clinical depression, and the gutting of our National Heath Service before our very eyes at the hand of “the baron-hearted right.”
It could certainly be argued that the sounds IDLES played with on this album were somewhat rudimentary in the grander scheme of hardcore punk, but they more than made up for this with vitriolic performances, an acerbic sense of wit, and the thoughtful ruminations put forward by frontman Joe Talbot on every track.
These roaring guitars and motorik rhythms served as a sort of Trojan horse for some very real and very morbid subject matters. A song like “Mother” might sound like a boozed up rant on its face, but beyond the acrimonious “MOTHER FUCKER” refrains come Talbot’s lamentations on sexual violence, and the male inferiority complex that often fuels these attacks. Meanwhile, the rabble-rousing “1049 Gotho” serves as a statement on depression on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves.
IDLES aren’t a political band, however. These issues aren’t politics; they’re fundamentally philanthropic and humanist, and cut through modern identity discourse like a scorching knife. Needless to say, after falling head over heels for Brutalism, I was more than excited for whatever it is that these Bristolian beatniks would be doing next.
The announcement for Joy as an Act of Resistance came by way of the lead single “Colossus“, which lives up to its title as a lumbering drone slowly but confidently swells into a wailing guitar romp, guided by Joe Talbot’s ever-acrid delivery: “GOES AND IT GOES AND IT GOES, GOES AND IT GOES AND IT GOES.” Just as the track dies down, it promptly picks back up again as an incendiary bar punk anthem, with Talbot listing off several male role models who live up to the IDLES ethos.
I’m like Stone Cold Steve Austin
I put homophobes in coffins
I’m like Fred Astaire
I dance like I don’t care
I’m like Ted DiBiase
I win no matter what it costs me
I’m like Evel Knievel
I break bones for my people
I’m on my best behavior
Like Jesus Christ our savior
I’m like Reggie Kray
— IDLES, “Colossus”
I fell equally in love with the next teaser single, “Danny Nedelko“, which is named for the Ukrainian-born singer for Heavy Lungs. A pro-immigration singalong through and through, Talbot expresses his solidarity with his fellow Britons, naming even more influential figures like Freddie Mercury, Mo Farah, and Malala Yousafzai. Being several shades brighter than any spot on Brutalism, this track seems to call back to the more alternative punk sounds the band experimented with at the beginning of their career; a song like “The IDLES Chant” from the Meat EP comes to mind.
It wasn’t until the release of the next single that my anticipation for this new album began to falter. The song “Samaritans” addresses toxic masculinity, and while IDLES’ takes on the matter are just as on-the-nose as usual, there’s nothing outstanding about this cut outside of the flickering guitar groove in the bridge underneath Talbot’s exclamation of “I kissed a boy and I liked it.” This isn’t the first time IDLES have addressed this very topic either, so the entire track just feels uneventful to me.
And now that the entire album is in front of me, I feel like a bulk of the album suffers from similar issues: the band start to tread water quickly with unoriginal song topics, less inspired lyrics, and an overall mellower sound that just doesn’t generate the same level of liberating catharsis that Brutalism had.
Down to its blasé name, “Love Song” is a techno-tinged jab at the standards for modern romance, such as buying your partner a card with the words “I love you” written on it. Maybe the chorus is intentionally underwritten, and the watery kick drum does well to offset any semblance of sincerity here, but I’m not really sure what this track adds to the IDLES canon that the song “Romantic Gestures” from Meat didn’t already. At least that track had a bigger personality and a more rewarding chorus.
“Television” is an even more flaccid cut—the band didn’t even write a second verse for this one, instead just repeating the first verse again as if it were engaging the first time. “Gram Rock” is apparently some sort of attempt at writing a concept song, but how this concept is brought to fruition or what it even adds to the track listing thematically is beyond me.
And even though I enjoy the song “Great” more as a single than I did “Samaritans”, it’s even harder to justify in the context of the record. I love the lyrics on this track, decrying Islamophobia and the sheer ignorance of the Brexit campaign, but the twangy guitars all throughout the cut had already been done six tracks ago on “I’m Scum”, which sits as one of my favourite songs on the LP. I love the tattling guitar leads in the middle of the verses, and Talbot’s lyrics about over-tipping his waiter and how he doesn’t care about “the next James Bond”—as well as the proclamations of “This snowflake’s an avalanche”—are all great.
The preceding track, “Never Fight a Man with a Perm”, is just as sharply written and even more hilarious. Talbot goes after this hypothetical archetype of masculinity, or as he describes him: “Brylcreem, creatine, and a bag of co-ca-ine.” All of these fantastic one-liners are followed by these crashing drums and thundering guitars, and this refrain of “concrete to leather” which is an undeniably badass moment on the record.
A heathen from Eton
On a bag of Michael Keaton
He thinks he’s suave
You’re not suave ’cause you watched Get Carter
You are a catalogue, plastic Sinatra
A try-hard, you should’ve tried harder
Me, oh me, oh my, Roy
You look like a walking thyroid
You’re not a man, you’re a gland
You’re one big neck with sausage hands
You are a Topshop tyrant
Even your haircut’s violent
You look like you’re from Love Island
You stood and the room went silent
— IDLES, “Never Fight a Man with a Perm”
With its funeral keys and militant drum beat, the song “June” might seem like an odd centrepiece to the album if you’re not aware of the context surrounding it: Joe Talbot has made it no secret that his daughter Agatha was stillborn in June of last year. It’s an absolutely harrowing listen with the wayward whistling, as well as Talbot’s cries of “A stillborn was still born,” stating that he still sees himself as a father. It’s enough to bring me close to tears with each listen.
If there’s one issue I have with this particular track, it’s the use of the “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” refrain in the second half. Far be it from me to tell Talbot how to express his own personal grieving process, but this particular phrase has become such a platitude in recent years that I can’t help but wonder if he could have expressed this feeling in a more personal and intimate way.
The song “Rottweiler” has already been in IDLES’ live setlists for a while now, and I can certainly see how it would work well as the soundtrack to a mosh pit, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for me as the closer. It’s almost as long as “Colossus”, but it has so little structure that it really fails to carry the same impact, even with the unruly three minute finish.
There’s a handful of fantastic moments on Joy as an Act of Resistance, and it’s definitely a more ambitious and diverse listening experience than Brutalism, but far too often this album comes across as underwritten, repetitive or just downright forgettable. I still have a great deal of love and respect for what IDLES are doing with their music, but I hope that whatever they do next comes with some more substantive ideas, and a little more attention to lyricism.
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Colossus / Never Fight a Man with a Perm / I’m Scum / Danny Nedelko / June