Album Review: IDLES – Ultra Mono

[Partisan; 2020]

As children, we are innocently subjected to the sheer power of nursery rhymes. Yes, there is power in the very simplistic and innocent nature of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and others as dark as “Ring Around The Rosie”. For children, these stories and rhymes spoken serve a transformative purpose, one we take for granted as we get older. Joe Talbot, frontman of UK band IDLES, however, has not. IDLES, amidst the ever-increasing fame established by the critical acclaim of their second album Joy As An Act of Resistance, are back with a new project titled Ultra Mono, a record that sees Talbot seek unity and change through the gravity of few words. Rather than writing a collection of dissertations on topics like gender equality and class economics. Ultra Mono is empowered and empowers by simplicity and childlike-wonder – for better or for worse.

Speaking to The Forty-Five recently, Talbot stated in regards to the new record’s lyrical approach, that he “wanted to be as concise and momentary as possible” – even more than on Joy As An Act of Resistance, which hit the nail on the head regarding toxic masculinity, class warfare, and immigration. Likewise, Ultra Mono serves up the same politically-charged ruckus, but with a shovel instead of a spoon. Though these discussions are worn more blatantly on their sleeves this time around—opting for clarity to avoid any possibility for confusion over where their hearts reside—IDLES arguably hammer down on these topics a little too hard.

More often than not, IDLES tend to conduct surface-level explorations that, for some odd reason, appease posh hipsters who champion wokeness as attire rather than a way of life – a matter mostly out of the band’s control. Though they maintain that their words are right from their heart, we’ve seen other music publications and even post-punk contemporaries, Sleaford Mods, criticize IDLES for not living a life that reflects their lyrics. These criticisms seem fairly leveled when considering a song like Ultra Mono‘s pre-album single “Model Village”, where Talbot sings about trying to escape the privileged village he grew up in. But the trite commentary and fumbled messaging doesn’t stop there. 

“Ne Touche Pas Moi” is another major offender. Though the track’s message is good at its core, Jehnny Beth’s furious shouts and Talbot’s allyship lose their lustre, further bringing down a song that already struggles to connect with its forcible and cringey chorus where the IDLES singer obnoxiously screams “consent” over and over again. If there was ever a moment that validated the idea that IDLES make virtue signalling punk rock – a common quip for many nay-saying critics – “Ne Touche Pas Moi” is that moment. 

Many of the criticisms against Talbot’s ‘virtue signalling’ are honestly, slight overkill, and dig too deep into hypotheticals of the band’s collective character. But, when Talbot bites back like the “puppy to the snake” to say “fuck you to the haters,” as he sings on “The Lover”, all criticisms against him are magnified by a sudden sense of his insecurity. While IDLES wave the flag of punk rock fragility and honesty, this is the type of self-doubt that comes across poorly; there is no reason to stoop down and address the inferior to get your point across. It’s simple as this, Joe: if you know you’re not privileged posh trash, why don’t you stay aligned with your self-established image of positivity? There are more ways than one to say, “Fuck you, eat shit” than to say it as plainly as you do.

Though it may seem that Talbot’s new-found stream-of-conscious lyrical approach is risky, it really isn’t. As highlighted in tracks like “Model Village”, “Ne Touche Pas Moi”, and even in the infectiously encouraging “Mr. Motivator”, not taking time to put pen to paper has yielded corny results that are safe and even disingenuous, depending on who you ask. The band has always taken a piss on the toxic world-at-large, but now, topics like misogyny and Brexit are reduced to simple catchphrases, to an almost pandering degree. Yelling “Fuck Trump” and “the government is trying to kill you” is true, yes, but it is now safe to say such things. Artists, including punk rock bands –and especially IDLES – have said these things before, and far more intelligently too. These discussions must be taken to depths beyond the neo-liberal frame of seeking real, progressive change.

Though Talbot’s shortcomings as an ally and cheeseball lyricism will continue to back-up the preconceived beliefs of many, one can’t help but laugh and feel refreshed when he confronts his flaws with self-deprecating humor and witty one-liners aplenty. Though his “sloganeering” threatens to diminish the importance of various societal plagues, there’s no denying the proven notion that simple words can unite masses; punk rockers have been doing it for years, protestors even longer, and children through nursery rhymes for centuries. We don’t need any more post-punk that gets intensely deep with political statements, only to reach a conclusion where futility is the end-all – that space is already occupied by the likes of Protomartyr and Fontaines D.C..

Sometimes, things need to be told with frankness, and IDLES tell it how it is, no matter what others think or say about them. Unity is their calling card, and empathy is their play to defeat bigotry. With Talbot lamenting “I want to be loved” on “A Hymn”, and then pulling from the late Daniel Johnston to sing “true love will find you in the end” on the album’s explosive closing track “Danke”, one can’t help but feel understood by such simple messaging from an imperfect man. Maybe we cringe because it is so rare that this level of positivity drives a punk band? It’s unorthodox, but if you can move past momentary vagueness and safe messaging, IDLES’ vision for inclusivity will settle. 

Prolonged skeptics will continue to deny the earnest heart behind Talbot and the way he delivers his lyrics. For some, it’s easy to detest his voice or overt pronunciation of words; it can come across as arrogant. But, somehow, Talbot makes the most needlessly cringey lyrics easy to rally around. Yes, even lines as lame as “like Conor McGregor with a samurai sword on rollerblades,” or something as half-baked as “our government hates the poor,” oddly feel authentic. How he bellows each word to a vain-popping degree makes it hard not to fight for the same cause he is.

Thankfully, there are moments far less cringe-worthy, but rather fun to point to. The Jamie Cullum-featuring (yes, you read correctly), onomatopoeia-filled “Kill Them With Kindness”, which will undoubtedly become a crowd favorite at shows, is Talbot at his most feral and ferocious. A song with lyrics like “wah, wah, wah, woop, woop, woop / said the flower to the sun” and saying, “I mean ba ba business / I’m not on my own,” should not work, but Talbot unloads every word (and sound) as if they were his last, gnashing his teeth, likely with eyes popping out of his skull.  

Though each track aims to spread love and unity, whether you believe the band’s polarizing frontman or not, Ultra Mono is a record that can still be admired for its vicious post-punk formula. You will not find here, shape-shifting epochs like the 2018 single “Colossus”; however, the band finds comfort in simple song structures, leaving room for them to romp around more frantically and blood-thirsty than ever. While Talbot’s lyrics lack the brutal quality of records prior, IDLES make it a point not to pull any punches musically.  

With Jon Beavis bashing away on drums, Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan wielding their guitars as cerated swords, and bassist Adam “Dev” Devonshire pumping blood as the band’s manic heart, Ultra Mono reminds listeners that IDLES do, in fact, have a spine. The ninth song on the album, “Reigns”, is a testament to the band’s existence and is their most explosive and intimidating moment yet. Utilizing a swelling bass throb that makes your blood boil, building to a searing chorus that makes you want to run through a wall, the track’s power truly lies with Talbot and his profound use of a few words and, in this case, a simple, disdainful question: “How does it feel to have blue blood coursing through your veins?” As he sneers through his clenched teeth, Talbot is undoubtedly his most pissed off but sincere self yet. 

To be perceived as sincere is a challenge, and becomes a more significant obstacle when the mound you build becomes taller and more embellished. People will come digging at that hill, that’s the reality. But when push comes to shove for those who perceive IDLES as ingenuine, the words of the late and, yes, imperfect Ruth Bader Ginsberg should be considered: “Fight for things you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Yes, IDLES have fallen short of their lyrical statements, whether by shortchanging women artists as potential supporting acts or by not entirely fitting the mould of the blue-collar punk they emulate. Now, they have a chance to take heed of these concerns and make sizeable moves to maintain legitimacy as a unifying punk band (it seems they’ve already started). But as they’ve recognized pitfalls both in interviews and within this new record, IDLES are evolving and learning how to create change through a model most accepting. It’s 2020: let’s try the simplicity of hope and clichéd positivity for a change. Maybe this tight collection of high-octane nursery rhymes and simple chants will do the trick.