Work on the new material started also immediately after their debut was complete. At first the warm reception that LP received had them second-guessing their next move. “It went from, ‘why don’t people get it?’ to ‘oh, people get it, let’s ingratiate ourselves to sustain that,’” says Bowen, “but the songwriting suffered because there wasn’t belief or honesty”. Fortunately, they recognised it, rediscovered their naivety and found themselves unthinking what is was to be a band making a second album. Instead, they had fun. A bit like they did when they used to wheel their drum kit down the Gloucester Road in a shopping trolley. “This album is a great example of allowing vulnerability to take control,” notes Bowen.
If ‘Brutalism’ was a tight knot of pent-up history unfurling in one fireball release, then ‘Joy…’ very much lives in the present. Musically, compared to their debut, there’s variation – the slower bits are slower, the faster bits are faster, everything is better placed but never overthought. There’s opening track ‘Colossus’ a gradual-build drone-rock number that disappears altogether for a few seconds before returning like a West Country slant on Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’. Lead single ‘Danny Nedelko’ is a catchy punk-rock celebration of immigration. Lyrically, the rest of the album travels into the places that have been on IDLES’ minds the past 18 months: that means the damage caused by traditional constructs of masculinity, the confused aftermath of Brexit and, of course, there’s a few jabs at the Tories (‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’ features the hum-dinging line “A heathen / From Eton / On a bag of Michael Keaton”).
But there’s also one human experience channeled into two tracks – ‘June’ and ‘Television’ – that appropriately sit in the heart of the album, and truly underline Joe’s commitment to openness. In June 2017 Joe and his partner’s daughter Agatha died – she was still-born. Understandably, they both continue to grieve and compute a tragedy that obliterated their world. “That came as a real fucking barrage of pain,” Joe begins, when he brings up the subject. “With my mum, it was bearable no matter what because I knew she was dying and I had a long time to prepare for it. Obviously with my daughter dying in labour I had no time to prepare for it and my partner went through a lot more pain than I did. So I had to really step up and help her out.”
I ask if there was any reluctance to include that pain publically in his work.
“No,” he says without hesitation. “The whole reason I’m still here is because I was able to share my emotions. I want to use my situation to educate and help, because I was helped and educated by counselling. Sharing and offloading. It’s a really dangerous thing to feel like you’re a burden if you share your emotions. What our platform does is give people an example of ‘fuck, if I can talk about my daughter dying’ to hundreds of thousands of people then it’s ok to talk about dead children.’” He takes a sip of water. “It’s not embarrassing. It’s not a burden. It happens a lot. A lot of people miscarry without talking about it, and it’s shit. It’s not healthy. My daughter wasn’t a miscarriage, she died in labour. She was a baby that was alive and kicking and she died. But I’m saying beyond that… [this kind of thing] needs to be undirtied, unsullied, this is a regular occurrence.”
‘Television’ is written as a message to his daughter. The sentiment of the track is a simple life strategy: “Fuck perfect. Love yourself.”
“If you don’t love yourself, you won’t give yourself the time to improve,” he explains. “You’ll go and get shitfaced or do drugs or turn to people that treat you like shit because that’s what you think you deserve. But if you give yourself the time to enjoy yourself you learn to love yourself – you look inward and you improve.”
‘June’, slower in pace and more harrowing in tone, features the repeated line: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s borrowed from a phrase often credited to Ernest Hemingway. Legend has it he was challenged in a bet to see if he could make a man cry in six words. The effect in the song is crushingly sad. Joe explains that he wrote the lyrics while he was in the shower two days after his daughter passed. “I was embarrassed because I felt that it was so naive and so indulgent, but that’s the whole point with the pressures of being a man – you feel like you’re being indulgent when actually you’re just expressing your feelings. I spoke to Bowen about it, he was like, ‘it’s important we put it on, that’s the whole point of this record.’”
The cruel paradox was that this agonising human event occurred at a time when the band were achieving success like they’d never tasted before – a summer filled with festival bookings, an unlikely slot supporting Foo Fighters and an autumn tour.
“I didn’t really keep it together,” says Joe. “I thought I was keeping it together. I had three weeks before we went on tour. Me and my partner just stayed at home and cried and talked and cried and talked. Our friends were amazing and helped us. Brought us food to the house. I went on tour, me and my partner had spoken about it, and we thought it would be alright – but then I turned to alcohol and drugs. I wasn’t alright. I thought I was ready, but now looking back I was nowhere near ready. I shouldn’t have gone on that tour, because something much worse could have happened. I should have stayed at home and fixed with my girlfriend.”
Never fight a man with a perm
Later, Lee, Dev and Jon are sat on a grassy bank before having to go to work that evening (Lee works at a music college, Dev at a venue). I ask how they first reacted when Joe brought in such sensitive lyrics to the rehearsal space for the first time. “I laughed,” says Lee, although clearly not in a harsh way, but in reaction to the astonishing rawness of it. “It was just like ‘fucking hell mate!’ It’s a simple fact that we’re just all really good friends. No matter what happens we’re there for each other.”
That loss doesn’t define the album, but it is one of the subjects that revolve around the master theme of vulnerability. Knowing their past and present experiences it makes sense that all the strands of IDLES feed into that. When Joe shouts from the stage, like he often does, about how he loves the NHS it’s because he and his family have benefited from its care. He’s compelled to write songs that skewer “bullshit” macismo behaviour (‘Colossos’, ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’, ‘Samaritans’, ‘Cry To Me’) because without embracing his emotions he might not be here right now. “What it is to be a man needs to be crushed. A new way of being needs to come out of it,” he says. “There’s probably a horrendous amount of men who’ve killed themselves because of the phrase ‘man up’ or because of the phrase ‘don’t cry.’” He also just “fucking loves” immigrants (‘Danny Nedelko’), is just as exhausted by Brexit as everyone else but wants to move forward (‘Great’) and hates The Sun (‘Rottweiler’). On this new album he’s also written his first love song, called ‘Love Song’. “I’d never written a love song, which I thought was a bit of a shame. I love her so much. She’s hard work and I am hard work. Staying together through our illnesses, I think that’s something to celebrate.”