IDLES released their third album Ultra Mono in September 2020, scoring their first UK Number 1 album, but attracting more criticism than ever for its punk pastiche sound and messaging. They seemed to be believing their own hype, and came out with a bunch of songs that displayed sheer arrogance in their surface-level tackling of complex social topics and juvenile rebuttal to negative comments. The songs’ structures were boring too, full of hackneyed shortcuts to moshes in the way they inevitably built to bigger and bigger riffs. Even the band’s guitarist Mark Bowen can now admit that it was “kind of like a caricature of our identity that helped us see it for all its flaws.”
It could be argued, then, that lockdown was a good thing for IDLES. Not being able to take Ultra Mono on the road and feed the cycle of hype created by baying fans bouncing along to their mindless new songs, they were forced to sit at home and face the music. This gave them the impetus to create a quick follow-up – and one much more worthy of following their exemplary 2018 album Joy As An Act Of Resistance.
Kenny Beats is back to collaborate with Bowen on production, which might be surprising considering how ill-received the previous album was. It’s hard to say, but it seems as though this time around the producer has had a lot more impact on the overall sound. As he has proved many times, most recently on Vince Staples, he is a master of cultivating mood and atmosphere, which is what makes Crawler’s successes work.
Opening track “MTT 420 RR” immediately puts us in a different headspace to what we’ve heard from IDLES before. It’s an atmospheric piece which finds Joe Talbot way off his high horse and admitting “It was February, I was cold and I was high” over a skeletal synth-and-guitar pulse that remains steady throughout. Even as he strays into a stereotypical IDLES finale by repeatedly chanting “are you ready for the storm?”, its effect feels much greater because it’s delivered in this frigid space, rather than over yet another head-clanging riff.
Beats’ acumen also seems to be in place on “The Wheel”, which could easily tip over into another meathead jam, but has enough definition in its sound – especially the thunderous bass blasts that underpin it – to make it a whole new beast. The same could be said for the following “When The Lights Come On”, although this time they shift away from volume towards luminous atmosphere, and it’s a spine-tingling success – although Protomartyr would have a good plagiarism case against them.
It’s also tempting to attribute the stutter stomp of “Car Crash” to Beats, as its booming rhythm hews towards hip-hop. No matter who takes credit for the shift, it’s another worthwhile diversion for IDLES’ sound, as it finds a new way to retexture and reposition Talbot’s growl that makes it sound unique again, and the song’s conclusive detonation of grinding guitars is one of their most thrilling recorded moments to date. Another intriguing inclusion is “Wizz”, a 30-second furious fireball in the vein of Black Flag that is a delightful surprise and something IDLES might consider doing more of going forward.
Unfortunately, there are still moments where IDLES revert back to that caricature sound, with a handful of songs sounding like leftovers from Ultra Mono. Most egregious is “New Sensation”, which digs up the year-old debacle around the UK government’s woeful campaign to encourage artists to retrain but doesn’t introduce any new thoughts to it, instead rehashing stale uproar in an unimaginative and ham-fisted way. “Crawl!” finds Talbot inhabiting a drug-hoovering Jordan Belfort type, but his caricature lacks the nuance to be scathing, especially amidst a torrent of guitars – fans are no doubt going to be shouting along to “feeling magni-fucking-fique” in earnest when they play it live. “Meds” is a similar attack on middle class habits, but again it feels like IDLES brought a wrecking ball where a scalpel was needed.
On the bright side, these moments of numbskullery are offset by some of IDLES’ most emotional moments to date. Chief among these is lead single “The Beachland Ballroom”, a starry-eyed twirl beneath silvery lights, full of desperation. It’s so interesting to hear Talbot’s voice in this twinkling arrangement that the words themselves don’t even matter, you could just croon-growl along with the single-word hook “damage” – but he in fact turns in one of his most picturesque and heartbreaking tales.
Special mention also goes to “Progress”, a brave excavation of the single-mindedness of an addict. Amidst an atmospheric melange of glitching electronics and flickering guitars, we hear Talbot in prayer-like admission, “As heavy as my bones were, I wanna feel myself get high”. He goes on repeating similar weaknesses as the sounds behind him continue to curdle, his voice sounding genuinely hollow. It’s one that is unlikely to get an outing at gigs, but should still be held in high regard among fans as a deep cut classic.
All in all, Crawler is a return to form for IDLES, albeit with a handful of sub-par offerings. There’s still more than enough here for them to be rabble-rousing festival headliners, but also some tracks that offer up new ideas that they could carry forward. If they want to become the generational band that they have all the tools and talent to become, they need to keep harnessing these divergent tones and shaving off the mindless ones as they make their next step.