It’s hard to think of the last time a British band rose from local obscurity to national fame in such short order. In 2017 and 2018, IDLES skyrocketed out of the sweaty clubs of Bristol and into the middlebrow consciousness with their first two albums, dragging a swathe of the faltering British guitar scene along with them. Indeed, for better or worse, every other new band now has some trace of that IDLES DNA in their constitution. This third album is more of a consolidation of their leader of the pack status rather than any reinvention of their identity: Joe Talbot is still raging, the band are still thrashing, the message is still abundantly clear.
Talbot’s lyrics hover around familiar themes – class inequality, openness around mental health, a sense of community – but also settle on a striking new motif of self-acceptance: “I am I” is a recurring mantra on ‘Grounds’ and ‘Mr. Motivator’ and the sentiment recurs throughout. Once again there is a chance to play random public figure bingo with Talbot’s references too (David Attenborough, Flavor Flav, LeBron James and Delia Smith are among the lucky winners this time), as well as a choice sample of jukebox singalongs, from Daniel Johnston to Lynn Anderson (“I beg your pardon, I don’t care about your rose garden”).
It is true that IDLES have never met a nail that they could resist sledgehammering repeatedly over the head, but it would take a cynic to disbelieve their authenticity. On ‘Model Village’, for example, Talbot sings, “Just give them an anthem and they’ll sing it / Still they don’t know the meanings in it,” as if it might be an original thought, or on ‘Anxiety’, the laser beam turns to the suppression of the working class: “Given drugs you can’t afford / So the poor can’t afford the cure”. It won’t bother the Nobel committee but still it’s hard not to enjoy the prospect of being part of a future live crowd as he sings it. “This is your dance space,” he bellows on ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’, the title lyric sung with Kathleen Hanna aggression by Jehnny Beth, tackling head-on the issue of sexual assault at gigs.
Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan’s guitars are redoubled in their muscularity, especially on the steamrolling opener ‘War’. The only track to break with the formula is ‘A Hymn’, a foggy post-punk prowler that suggests where the band might head when they tire of the pattern that appears to come so easily to them. Their schtick isn’t tired yet, the humour is as enjoyable as it ever was, and the world is still in a grim enough state that every emission from Joe Talbot is welcome. Ultra Mono is not a record to change anybody’s mind about IDLES, nor is it a sign of any dropoff in form.