IDLES: Ultra Mono review | Social class 'controversy' | Clumsy or quirky?
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Bristol Punks IDLES return with their brilliant third album Ultra Mono and it's not without controversy. Here's a look at whether the social justice and class criticisms are warranted as well as a final verdict on the album.
Social class criticisms
Last week, my Twitter handle (@BFloodlights) was drawn into an argument regarding the working-class merits of IDLES, the Bristol Punk band famously anti-Tory, putting forth views associated with the Left. Though, typically, the debate wasn't as much about the views of the band themselves, but instead around frontman Joe Talbot's (through his lyrics) representation of the band as ‘working-class’.
For those who enjoy British Indie Rock, there are at least three positions to take on the band. For the first group, IDLES are heroes of the Left, honest lyrics which provide an unheard voice in today’s music industry, tacking social justice issues. To others, they are middle-class phoneys jumping on a box-ticking bandwagon, or are, at least, going overboard in their moralistic preaching. Then you have those in the middle who enjoy the raw energy of the band without looking too far into the politics.
Last week IDLES feud with London-based Indie band Fat White Family was again reignited. In an essay on IDLES frontman Joe Talbot, Lias Saoudi (singer in Fat White Family) wrote that “IDLES represent everything that is wrong with contemporary cultural politics”, criticising them for pouring “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”.
IDLES shouldn’t be surprised at the backlash, but it was clear in an interview with The Guardian’s Katie Hutchinson that Talbot was seriously irked by it.
“It makes me angry…I was a very violent person. So yes, one day I genuinely had to stop myself driving up to London and finding him [Lias Saoudi, Fat White Family frontman] because I go through fits and pangs of, like: ‘F*** off, just leave us alone.’”
In 2018, following the release of Joy As An Act of Resistance, the band could do no wrong. Bold, politically-charged lyrics which addressed a number of social themes, from the acceptance of immigrants ('Danny Nedelko'), challenging toxic masculinity ("the mask of masculinity, is a mask, a mask that’s wearing me" – on 'Samaritans') and even addressed the criticism the band has received for their Leftist ideals ("this snowflake is an avalanche" – on 'I’m Scum'). It was an energetic, attitude-filled listen and one of my favourites of that year.
Fast-forward a few months to February 2019, following a surprise BRIT Award nomination for British Breakthrough, Sleaford Mods frontman Jason Williamson had accused them of ‘class appropriation’, feeling ‘cheated’ when he found out they weren’t the rallying working-class band they’d ‘presented’ themselves.
The criticism may have grown arms and legs since (Fat White Family, again, referring to them as "self-neutering middle-class boobs" in February 2019) but the band’s success has run parallel. And, let’s be honest, they’d hardly be the first band to find success before others line up to take pot shots. An unrepentant Talbot declares in Ultra Mono's second track ‘Grounds’; "You scrawling your aggro sh** on the walls of the cubicle, saying my race and class ain't suitable, so I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful!". Don't let them get you down.
So whilst there are those who see their lyrics as simplistic box-ticking, there’s also many who adore the band, and with an army of fans surrounding them, who cares what the haters say? To again quote 'Grounds', "Do you hear the thunder? That's the sound of strength in numbers".
'Model Village' controversy
Much of the criticism has centred around their new track ‘Model Village’. At the heart is a catchy punk song with a great hook, describing a fictional English village where racist, homophobic and sexist attitudes lie. It’s a small town full of "half-pint thugs", "nine fingered boys" and misguided nationalism. There may be some truth to Joe Talbot’s observation (part based on the town he grew up), but making sweeping statements and using language like "gammon" has been regarded a bit of a cheap shot from a band promoting unity and working-class solidarity.
Some have even criticised them for slipping into class stereotypes of their own. Pitchfork writer Jazz Monroe, in his damning review of Ultra Mono, believed the song represented "a vent for the sort of leftists who can’t decide whether to valorize the working class or furiously condemn it for the calamities of Brexit and Boris Johnson."
It's a noticeable criticism of the Left, a minority of whom chastise a class they claim alliance. Having said that, I don’t necessarily feel IDLES fall into this trap on Ultra Mono (aside from a couple of jibes in ‘Model Village’).
Clumsy or quirky?
Despite the above controversies, Ultra Mono is a fantastic 42-minute record from start to finish, there’s barely a dull moment to be had. It’s high energy Post-Punk, punchy basslines, big choruses and shouty vocals from Joe Talbot, who acts the satirist, political protestor and social commentator.
The theme of the record doesn’t stray too far from what you’d expect from an IDLES record, though there is perhaps less variety lyrically than on Joy As An Act of Resistance, focusing their vented frustrations on the current Conservative Government ("How does it feel to have/ Blue blood coursing through your veins / How does it feel to have / Shanked the working classes into dust?" - on 'Reigns')
As the music industry churns out polished Pop acts by the dozen, the success of bands like IDLES and Fontaines D.C. reveals a strong appetite for rock n’ roll rawness and lyrics which speak honestly about society. The quirkiness of Joe Talbot is one of the most identifiable parts of Ultra Mono, staying just the right side of the quirky/cringey line. You can easily see people taking the cringey route and, for that reason, they’ll never be a band for everyone.
Explosive opener ‘War’ may contain some clunky lines ("Clack-clack, clack a-clang clang/ that’s the sound of the gun going bang bang"), but Joe Talbot somehow manages to get away with it. Similarly, ‘Kill Them With Kindness’ opens with "arf arf arf arf, said the puppy to the snake". Again, read out of context, the lyrics sound ridiculous, but set to an in-your-face punk backdrop it somehow works.
'Mr Motivator', the first preview track released back in May, is one of the highlight tracks on the record due to the absurd and surrealist pictures Joe Talbot paints ("Colin McGregor with a samurai sword on rollerblades" and "David Attenborough clubbing seals with LeBron James" amongst the highlights), before the addictive and motivational chorus; "lets seize the day, all hold hands, chase the pricks away". It’s great fun.
The dark, anti-Government ‘Carcinogenic’ is another highlight, predicted to sound epic live as the explosive chorus kicks in ("You only die once/ You’ll never come back / You’re gone when you’re gone/ So, love what you can"), also featuring lyrics which berate the current Government ("Over-working, working nurses and teachers/ Whilst you preach austerity is…/ Carcinogenic").
The anti-rape anthem ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’ acts as a "pistol for the wolf whistle", whilst ‘The Lover’, features a chorus which sums the band up in five words; "F*** you, I’m a lover!", their confrontation sound juxtaposed to well-meaning lyrics promoting unity and acceptance.
The dark, moody and insecure penultimate track ‘A Hymn’ ("I want to be loved/ Everybody does") may be one of their greatest songs yet. It allows us to take a slight breather before an explosive finale (‘Danke’) ends the album in a hurricane of noise you’d only expect from IDLES.
Honestly, this album won’t be for everyone. There will be people finding flaws in the clunky lyrics, believing the band to be over-preaching. And yes, they are guilty of both to a certain degree, but sound-wise, like any great Punk record, it hits you like a punch in the face, having you coming back for more once the 42-minutes are done for.
Pummelling basslines, dark riffs, explosive choruses and a general rawness to the whole proceedings amounts to one of the freshest sounding albums of the year from four 30-something outcasts whose roughness is usually written off by today’s music industry. Let’s just embrace them for what they are.