IDLES – Ultra Mono

A celebration of the beauty that can happen when people come together in love and unity.
Label: Partisan
Released: 25th September 2020
Rating: ★★★★

Some people think IDLES are a shouty-shouty-angry-angry band that are almost perfectly designed for 6Music Dads (and Mums) to fall back in love with music to. And there’s a lot of truth in that tbf. But that’s only telling half a story. Because somehow, somewhere, in between the ‘being hit with a car’ brutality of, erm, ‘Brutalism’, and the lightning-in-a-bottle-holy-shit-this-is-amazing-ism of ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’, they smashed any box they were being put into by the doubters into a million pieces and became one of the most exciting bands around. Mad, innit?

Now, on their third album, they have to face all the challenges that come when you have lost that element of surprise. They sure don’t mess around to begin with, the opening ‘War’ sounding like five angry bears who have woken up to find that not only has Goldilocks eaten their porridge, but she’s nicked their fridge and crashed their car too. Shouty-shouty-angry-angry. But, dig a little deeper, and the anti-war message contained within the blitzkrieg of noise shows a band thriving in life’s messy contradictions, a thread that runs through much of the record. With singles ‘Grounds’ and ‘Mr Motivator’ following swiftly in its destructive wake, it is an exhilarating start – even if it is a pace that they ultimately can’t quite keep up this time around.

It’s not a flawless record by any means. At points, the album wanders into what are now, perhaps, overly-familiar song topic territories for the band, and the very nature of some of Joe Talbot’s lyrics and the social commentary can’t help but feel a bit too on-the-nose occasionally. Thematically, if not in sound, it returns to and expands on many of Joe’s favourite topics – mental health, self-empowerment, society in general. Always fiercely political on record, that continues here – but it sometimes leads to a feeling of being hit over the head repeatedly by someone arguing with you about something you actually agree with them about if only you could get a word in edgeways. Thankfully, the endearing self-awareness (and self-deprecation) in Joe Talbot’s lyrics, a man seemingly always happy to poke fun at himself and his love of killer catchy slogans (while still delivering killer catchy slogans) makes them swerve most of the cliches. And after all, it wouldn’t really be an IDLES record if it was an album about the simple pleasures of skipping around the park on a sunny day, would it?

‘Model Village’ shows them at their best, poking fun rather than purely haranguing. It is perfect Gammon bait for those on Twitter with Union Jacks and ‘love my kids, leave means leave’ in their bios, those who you can always rely on to shout “I JUST DON’T LIKE IT WHEN PUNK BANDS GET POLITIKAL ALRIGHT?” as soon as a famously-political band gets, well, political. At its best when exploring new sounds, none more so than on the stunning ‘A Hymn’, a song about the simple, universal need to be loved. That the most powerful song on the record is quiet, slow-building and reflective will perhaps be a surprise to some, being not so shouty-shouty-angry-angry after all.

But most importantly, when ‘Ultra Mono’ hits, it hits hard. The Jehnny Beth-featuring ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’ in particular is searing, a righteous rage of a song about consent and invasion of personal space that is surely destined to be a womxn-to-the-front highlight and heartbeat of IDLES live shows, whenever they may return. It is one of a number of songs where you can feel, and almost taste, the future ghost of a live experience, a shared communal ‘Moment’ in the making. And that, ultimately, is the power behind ‘Ultra Mono’. Because for all of the ugly rage and fury at modern life on display here, it is also a celebration of the beauty that can happen when people come together in love and unity to face the turmoil and traumas of an increasingly angry, shouty, scary world, and facing it armed only with a hug. In many ways a love letter to the online fan culture that has fuelled the band ever onwards and upwards, it would take a brave person to bet against this from firing IDLES to even more ridiculous levels.

Jamie MacMillan

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