Updated: Dec 1, 2021
Addiction problems and near-death experiences; the Bristol band’s fourth record sees them change their focus to battles closer to home.
In a recent interview, IDLES frontman Joe Talbot revealed the band would no longer be performing 2020 single ‘Model Village’ live. With it berating the bigoted attitudes of a fictional small town full of “half-pint thugs” and “nine-fingered boys”, it described such inhabitants as “gammon” and nationalistic “idiots”. This brought about a wave of unwanted criticism ahead of their third album Ultra Mono. What was lapped up by many, hit a nerve with quite a few others...this being the murky world of post-Brexit Britain, after all.
In the run-up to last year’s album release, Lias Sauodi, singer in Fat White Family, criticised the snobbery of the band, suggesting they “pour scorn on anyone that comes from a small town that hasn’t quite managed to adopt the same middle-class metropolitan view they call their own”. It wasn’t the first time they’d been criticised in this manner either.
In February 2019, following the success of Joy As An Act of Resistance, Sleaford Mods frontman Jason Williamson accused them of “class appropriation”, revealing his disappointment upon learning their class origins didn’t match up to the claims made in songs like ‘I’m Scum’ (“I’m council house and violent / I’m laughing at the tyrants / I’m sleeping under sirens”). If they weren’t being criticised for attacking the working classes, then they were being chastised for wrongfully claiming membership. It’s no wonder they’d later choose to change their focus altogether.
Despite the haters, Ultra Mono saw IDLES continue in their production of unrepentant post-punk anthems, again challenging elitist attitudes, and attacking racist, sexist and homophobic viewpoints. For many, however, ‘Model Village’ felt a step too far, believing the optics to be of a band who were calling out a class of people they’d previously claimed solidarity with. Recently, however, frontman Joe Talbot has tried to distance himself from such cynicism and scold, admitting to “losing control of our narrative…instead of being mindful and holding myself accountable, I was fighting”.
In my review of the album, I admired the punchiness and boldness of the record, though found it difficult to ignore many of the clunky and ill-thought out lyricism on tracks like ‘Mr Motivator’ (“David Attenborough clubbing seals with LeBron James”), and ‘Kill them with Kindness’ (“Arf arf arf arf, said the puppy to the snake”). Still, that said, it remained one of my most listened to records of the year.
Fourteen months is a really short time between albums to present any kind of change or progression. In this case, the distance couldn’t be more gaping in terms of subject matter. Fearing they’d become too predictable, caricatured and likely weary of another backlash, IDLES have changed their focus more inward for fourth album CRAWLER.
It opens with ‘MTT 420RR’, a tension-building song that tells the tale of a Joe Talbot drug-fuelled February evening (“It was February, I was cold and I was high…”). Inspired by a near-fatal motorcycle crash that forced him to face up to his addictions, the IDLES singer goes on to describe what the accident site would look like had the worst come to fruition (“The swell of heaven on my dashboard / I can see my spinal cord swing high”). It finishes on an intense refrain of “are you ready for the storm?”, setting a scene of personal desperation and a man crying for help.
Addiction is a theme heard throughout and on the dark, Joy Division/Interpol-inspired ‘When the Lights Come On’, Talbot sings about an endless evening of debauchery and escapism (“I’m in a paralytic loveless dream / Not a single face I've seen / Is a friend I recognise or recognises me”). Powerful and gloomy, such a track also happens to be one of the best on the record.
Vulnerability isn’t exactly something we expect from the Bristol post-punk band, so they need to be applauded for their radical swing from social commentary to introspective contemplation. On first listen, one track in particular will make you sit up and pay extra attention for this reason. ‘Progress’ has Joe Talbot at his most focused, least playful and, similar to the opener, in full-on reflective mode. He battles his demons and, again, confesses to a cycle of self-destruction.
Sonically it’s also one of the most beautiful and experimental tracks they’ve ever produced, packed with atmosphere, electronics and a dirty bassline two thirds in. Joe’s repeated words “I don’t wanna feel myself come down…” really hit hard and you can’t help but emphasise with the broken man presented for us to judge. It’s a track so great and well-positioned on the album, it ensures staleness is neglected so near to the end of the record. "Progress" in name, sound and lyrical theme. This really is new ground for IDLES and is so fantastic, it’ll have you hanging on every word.
The change in tact surprised everyone back in September when the band released ‘The Beachland Ballroom’ as the first preview single for the album. It’s a song slower and more soulful than we had been used to from IDLES, revealing an impactful change of direction was incoming. An exploration of trauma and an utterly captivating listen that had us eager to hear more.
‘Crawl!’ picks the pace up a track later and finds IDLES in more familiar, punchy punk terrain. It’s a feel-good anthem to counter the hopelessness of before, a reassurance to the listener that the singer is battling through his issues (“And yeah, I'm a f***ing crawler / Crawling hurts, but it works for me / I'm alright! / I’m alright!”). It's an explosive banger and pick me up to ensure we don’t get too bogged down, designed to ensure we’re “feeling magni-f***ing-fique” (as Talbot sings with typical gusto).
One of the strengths of the album is revealed through these two midpoint tracks, as the album moves from sadness and reflection to uplifting at the drop of the hat. Over the 46-minute listen, there’s something for the listeners of old (‘The Wheel’, ‘King Snake', ‘The End’), whilst we’re also treated to more experiment and progressive numbers (‘‘Car Crash’, ‘Meds’, ‘Progress’) to retain and challenge our attention.
Truthfully, like a lot of the band’s work, this record won’t be for everyone. IDLES will always be a marmite (love them or hate them) kind of band and if you were to completely iron out their roughness then you’d lose a large part of the essence of the band themselves. With CRAWLER they’ve reigned in the outward, political angst and picked up a more introspective outlook. The sound, in part, is also more experimental and melancholic to support the new lyrical outpourings. Though, fear not, there’s still a wave of tracks that’ll lift your spirits and have you enjoying the classic IDLES sound.
The majority of the time, this album is an absolute delight, though tracks like ‘Meds’ and ‘Car Crash’ fail to hit the mark, appearing too claustrophobic and unlistenable at points to enjoy. Those two are firmly on the skip list, whilst tracks like ‘The New Sensation’ begin and finish without much desire to ever go back and listen again.
IDLES have proven their dynamism on CRAWLER just in time, before anyone can complain about their predictable, repetitive nature. That it comes around only a year after their last is even more impressive. The political preaching of before threatened to turn the band into a giant cliché so this is a welcomed return from the Bristol band. They’ve made the best decision of their career to change their focus and add in some added character to their sound.
What did you think of CRAWLER? How does it compare to Ultra Mono and Joy As An Act of Resistance? Let us know on Twitter @BFloodlights.