My mother works ten hours, five days a week. My stories are hardly the amplified fables of class-struggle and political deception as in ‘Brutalism’, but it does seem like IDLES are a band people feel a certain ownership of. Not that long ago the Conservative cabinet quit in such volume that it wouldn’t look out of place in an IKEA; BoJo and David Davies were rumoured – jokingly, I think – to enter the Love Island villa (work visas permitting); Farage fought his post-Brexit depression by killing an endangered tope shark. As for the last couple of months? You can’t help but feel IDLES would have despaired at the lot of it.
No one saw ‘Brutalism’ coming last year. Their debut album was furious, concrete-faced, politically acute punk rock. Not only that, but it was an album that the South West had been calling for. You can’t underplay its geographical significance. You could taste the salt of Exmouth’s night-time sea front and shitty neon lights with Joe Talbot’s every vocal slur, the delirious sweat of Exeter’s Cavern Club with every grungy intonation. What do you get when you take the platitudes and cider away from The Wurzels and hand them a Red Stripe? A still life of monotonous small-city-living in thirteen fetid sketches.
They’ve now grouped around Bristol as their spiritual home. At least, it’s a place less like “a fish bowl of torrid little bellends.” You could see them on the cover of last month’s Loud And Quiet. The forthcoming Joe Talbot was adorned with Sting’s face on his T-shirt. Guitarist Mark Bowen’s handlebar moustache has taken on an air of the tamed Arthur Shelby from Peaky Blinders. Their reputation for delirious live shows and fast-tempered music is all well and good, but ahead of their second album they look like the same cuddly punks who satirised Mary Berry as a metaphor for snobbery and the class divide.
The two lead tracks from ‘Joy as an Act of Resistance’ take on two completely different sides of the IDLES equation. Album opener ‘Colossus’ is a furious two-part drone-rock protest against toxic masculinity – “I am my father’s son, his shadow weighs a tonne” – while ‘Danny Nedelko’ is a song about how much Joe “fucking loves immigrants”. It is to ‘Joy…’ what ‘One Rizla’ was to Shame’s ‘Songs of Praise’: an unrestrained outburst of pop royalty. Written about their Ukrainian friend, frontman of fellow-Bristolian band Heavy Lungs, it’s as much an A-to-Z of everyone’s favourite immigrants as it is a merry middle finger to white supremacy. One of the more poignant YouTube comments gets it: “how can a band make me want to punch a wall and then hug a stranger in two singles?”
‘Joy…’ comes with a whole new sincerity, from guitar licks that hark back to late ’70s UK punk rock pioneers and the Mod revival scene (‘Rottweiler’) to globalised cult trailblazers Hüsker Dü (‘Great’). There’s no attempt to imitate a scene; it’s both a natural product of its Bristolian DIY heritage and a beacon for the all-inclusive punk-rock revival, recently revved up by releases from the likes of Protomartyr, Preoccupations and Iceage among others.
A defining trait of ‘Brutalism’ was its humour: ‘Rachel Khoo’ didn’t only complement IDLES’ curious sensibility to namecheck British chefs, but it found mischievous pleasure in quoting Lonnie Donegan’s ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ word for word. The same world brings you cutting lyrics like “you look like a walking thyroid” and “you’re one big neck with sausage hands” in the tentatively titled ‘Never Fight a Man With a Perm’, before going on to quote ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’. Not even Nancy Sinatra (or maybe Jessica Simpson) is safe.
The peaks of ‘Joy’ are actually the slow moments – and arguably the peaks of IDLES’ discography so far. ‘June’ is a heart-wrenching track about the still-birth of Talbot and his partner’s daughter in 2017. Each iteration of the six-word story “Baby shoes for sale, never worn” sounds more painful, but determined for the story to be told. No subject is off-limits. Elsewhere, Talbot’s lyrics could be scrawled on cardboard protest signs, from searing critiques of the government to fighting against the millennial name-callers: “This snowflake’s an avalanche” (‘I’m Scum’). ‘Love Song’ quips absurdist romanticism that Ivor Cutler would be proud of – “I carried a watermelon, I wanna be vulnerable” – even a bizarre cover of the ’60s soul/ R&B classic ‘Cry To Me’ comes through as punk with compassion.
‘Joy…’ is a self-confessed parade. It’s a punch-up and it’s a bear hug. It’s a less chic release than ‘Brutalism’, but the curse-of-the-second-album is not even a consideration. Where vulnerability is a strength, the thunderous closing track ‘Rottweiler’ is a reminder to check-in. The last you hear is a faint yell: “keep going, keep fucking going”. If ‘Brutalism’ was a pub brawl, ‘Joy’ is a reflective effort to break-up the fight, if just for a second, and talk about things. It’s solidarity and painful sincerity. It’s a protest that continues to define IDLES as an articulate force – a message that sharing is mending.
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