Album Review: IDLES – TANGK

[Partisan; 2024]

Earlier this month, I half-joked on Twitter that IDLES might actually be the post-punk equivalent of Coldplay. And the damnedest thing happened not even a week later. The Bristolian rock colossus released a video for the song “Grace” featuring a deep faked Chris Martin as depicted in the video for “Yellow”. As an avid, often exhausted Coldplay defender, I couldn’t help but smile.

Because here’s the thing that both have in common: they are chronically naive bands in the most frustrating and endearing way possible. They both hunt for a mainstream appeal but are also eager to try new things with each record, with the risk of being corny or uncool clear and present. I keep thinking about that oft-shared David Bowie quote about creativity: “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth.”

Well, Coldplay and IDLES tend to forget about that “little bit” part. They propel themselves from the diving board and go “bombs away!”, which has lead to some clumsy and terribly-written records – but spikes of sheer brilliance just as well. Truth be told, you kind of learn to love them for being unable to help themselves: they go for broke in their fervent bid to reinvent themselves – even if in doing so, they compulsively Leroy Jenkins right back into the fundamentals that earned them widespread following to begin with.

They are like Wile E. Coyote plummeting down the canyon again and again: you start loving them for their ceaseless fortitude to transcend beyond themselves, to the point where even their misfirings are executed with a certain grace. I tell you what, I’d rather see big bands do that instead of sticking to a formula to appease their fanbase. It helps that Coldplay and IDLES are nice guys; you always root for them to make a great record.

Which is what makes “Grace” such an unintentionally hilarious song: because this thing really does sound like something Chris Martin would sing in a Jesus Christ pose over a sea of lighters pointing skyward. IDLES frontman Joe Talbot – a crest of the post-punk revival’s devolvement into scream-shout-into-the-void self-defeatism – unburdens a newfound sensitivity on the band’s fifth album TANGK. On “Grace” his gatling gun oral onslaught is forgone for a mournful, reedy falsetto that feels a tad exhibitionist. It strikes a bit like that alien bug creature in Men In Black clumsily wearing human skin, especially with Avon Devonshire’s lumbering bass line sticking out like a gnarly ovipositor. It reminds us it’s still IDLES doing a belaboured Coldplay-cosplay.

Often-times, trying to reconcile strong contrasts within a single musical composition is a big positive, but to get compelling results takes a deft hand. You need some really good songwriting to weld it all together, and declaring “No God / no king / I said love is the thing” doesn’t even amount to the kind of stock platitude that tells you your heart is in the right place. Heck, it’s not even a thing.

Getting Radiohead-producer Nigel Godrich on board for TANGK rings like power move from a band who pretend not to care about their critical reception, but actually care perhaps a little too much about how to preach to those outside of the choir. In theory, there’s a lot to love about this pairing: it feels like a similar ploy to Coldplay getting in cahoots with Brian Eno for Viva La Vida, their most critically acclaimed album.

But on that record, everything clicked into place, with Eno and fellow abstractionist Jon Hopkins deftly rooting out filaments of despair from Chris Martin’s rosy cheeked, everyman earnestness: the title track – which became a smash hit – even has Martin wondering out loud at the top of his band’s success whether it’s really such a great gig being seated on the throne – a sentiment so prophetic we’re still seeing the ripple effect of it today. Eno also challenged Martin’s musical instincts, making him play piano with his fingers taped together – or even with one hand tied behind his back, as a way of highlighting the bare minimum of what a song needs.

TANGK‘s likewise attempt to claim critical, artistic and commercial success with a single sledgehammer swing carries over, well, mixed results. At the very least, you gotta admire the band’s moxie – and, true, there is a lot to like, and a few things to even love. Opening cut “IDEA 01”, for example, is a gripping mood piece with its icy Trent Reznor-ish piano flourishes and close collaborator Kenny Beats’ parched drum loop. These great atmospherics immediately set a powerful backdrop for Talbot’s threadbare falsetto. He paints the imagery of a house ablaze and a family desperately trying salvage what needs to be salvaged. The unfinished quality of both the lyrics and the song structure reinforce Talbot’s subdued storytelling: you desperately want to bellow “THE RAINDROPS!” in the hope a storm would come down to douse all the flames. The power of the song lies in its suggestion, and the imagery of a home breaking down in an inferno is a powerful allegory for a band ripe for departure from their comfort zone.

The house that Talbot and co. built isn’t burned to ashes completely, but it has become a fixer upper. Going by the band’s own account, its foundations are no longer built from disenchantment, but from love. And that’s a word that appears on TANGK about as often as LL Cool J’s output in the 90s. Those who paid attention to IDLES’ career arc since their breakthrough Brutalism know that love is something well-earned in Talbot’s case, having dealt with near-death experiences, addiction and family tragedy.

On IDLES’ fantastic previous album CRAWLER – puzzlingly described as a ‘transitional album’ – the listener felt like they were right there in the trenches with him, specifically on tracks like “Car Crash” and “Progress”. On the latter, his flagrant cut-up style lyricism wasn’t a hammy rallying cry for the disenfranchised: it was an acute documentation of his own despair, and showed what a great band IDLES can be if they truly home in creatively on their core instincts.

On TANGK, it’s easy to forgive the band for not opting to become voyeurs of these abject personal struggles any longer and instead testing the waters of what else they could be. Unfortunately, this soul search feels rather listless on the bulk of the songs recorded for TANGK. Frustratingly, just as IDLES are about to follow through on their more mellow and sensitive side, they seem to cower right back to their proven battering ram formula. “Gift Horse” leans fully into IDLES’ bread and butter: Mark Bowen’s buzzsaw riffs, John Beavis’ mortar-like drum breaks and Talbot bellowing about his personal joy as an act of resistance, rather than the collective’s. “Fuck the king! He ain’t the king / She’s the king”, he snaps, words that ring rather trite compared to Chris Martin wondering as an ersatz-monarch whether it’s his head that should be on a silver plate.

It goes to show: for something so universal, love actually is a tricky thing to write about, and TANGK often wields love like a toddler mashing a plastic circle toy into a square peg. On “POP POP POP” Talbot hurls the novelty pearl ‘freudenfreude’ our way – admittedly a fun subversion of the German word schadenfreude – to express the magnanimous act of celebrating your dearest ones. But without some sort of tether of despair, these words ring as hollow braggadocio. The song’s potato-gun beat and sinister synth drone actually make this the most Sleaford Mods-sounding IDLES song to date, answering the hypothesis what that band would sound like if someone secretly recorded Jason Williamson binging on Xanax. This gritty sonic direction juxtaposed with the rather celebratory lyrics doesn’t make a lot of sense, but maybe that’s also the point.

“Roy”, meanwhile, resonates as IDLES’ take on “The House of The Rising Sun”, with Talbot caterwauling “baby, baby, baby!” in declamatory rapture, ever so devoid of any libidinous drive. “Dancer” – adorned with swooping background vocals by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Nancy Whang – is a dysfunctional marriage between burrowing noise punk menace and jolly rockin’ pub anthem, with a lazy scrumping of a ubiquitous pop hook. It sounds like a band frozen in a schism between sticking to old habits and transitioning curiously into a different modus operandi – and Travolta-shrugging astray across the backdrop.

In a recent interview with The Line of Best Fit, Talbot is quoted saying he made a concentrated effort to explore fresh songwriting angles, before ultimately sticking to what comes natural to him: “I wanted to be the best songwriter I could be, and I thought that meant preparing and writing the lyrics before going to the studio, that maybe some of our songs in the past could’ve been better had I spent more time on them instead of writing them at the microphone. But within six months of writing, I realised that’s bullshit. Doing it at the microphone works every time. If a song speaks to us, it has to be from Bowen and it has to be from me – there has to be a sense that the music is from us. There is no way a song would get to the studio if it wasn’t good enough, in our opinion, whatever good means to us… Obviously, some people hate our music – but fuck the King, and fuck all of them.”

Listening to TANGK you can hear IDLES having trouble in picking a damn lane almost in real time. “Hall and Oates” – another chest-beating cannonade of Cupid’s arrows – features the line “Every time he shows me love / They say ‘You really love each other?’ / I say ‘It’s simple like duh duh'”, which doesn’t exceed the substance of your average Valentine’s Day gift card from Sears. Never mind the searing irony that Daryl and John aren’t exactly chatty these days. On “Jungle”, meanwhile, Talbot shakes his fist out loud to the heavens to “Save me from me”, leaving us to wonder whether he is sheepishly referring to his own insistence to stick to his tried-and-true hip-hop inspired wordplay.

When IDLES do try a little tenderness to circumnavigate their obtuse sloganeering, TANGK does elicit some very compelling moments. The Bowen-penned “A Gospel” is a magnificent piano-driven song where post-relationship sorrow is laid bare; Talbot’s trembly vocals – like a flame above a candle – manage to strike a real chord. The barren closer “Monolith” rings as a post-apocalyptic blues hymn that desperately clutches onto love without having to spell it out. “Who needs wings when I hear you sing?,” Talbot hums softly, and then out of nowhere within the song’s cold, ashen interior, a sultry sax flourish appears like a majestic songbird. It’s chilling stuff that rummages along the same terra firma as Nick Cave’s more recent records.

“Monolith” illustrates an elusive truth of love: that it often manifests in moments of silence, not loudness. Love should be the bare minimum, not something borrowed and sold, much like the hokey lyric Talbot blatantly recycles on “Gift Horse”. To bring up a cogent counterpoint: who’s to say we don’t need to be force-fed a heavy dosage of love when we witness children in Gaza getting carpet bombed by Israel in real time? The urgency of hammering that home certainly overrides any sort of bid for artistic merit.

Regardless of musical taste, you need to tip your hat to IDLES for going out of their own way to try and cut through the bullshit and let their message be universally understood. And for certain, I do hope TANGK will resonate on that sort of widescreen level. Talbot has said so multiple times that IDLES are not a punk band. It begs the question whether critics have miscast IDLES from the beginning: they never seem intent to become a band destined for a cult-following due to idiosyncratic particulars like some of their peers. If anything, the world could use a heavier arena-sized rock band willing to address the topics other arena-sized bands gloss over. If the songs happen to be too rudimentary to appease erudite consensus makers, then so be it.

The fact that TANGK captures a band boldly going out of their own depth doesn’t take away that IDLES come on a little too strong too often, compelling you to swipe left more often than right. Though they preach positive vulnerability and emasculation, the record still captures IDLES in transience of that very awakening. When the band do find the discipline to reel themselves in, their potential for righteous, rare songwriting depth undeniably shines through. Whatever it is IDLES have salvaged from the disjointed jumble that is TANGK, it must surely be something worth building on.