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Album review: IDLES - Joy as an Act of Resistance

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Joy as an Act of Resistance is an album of euphoric highs and crushing lows.

Sonically it doesn’t stray far from the satisfying abrasiveness of Brutalism’s post-punk, but now the lyrics have a keener edge than their debut’s unbridled angst. Joy opens with what is probably IDLES most atmospheric and experimental track to date in ‘Colossus’; an eerily sparse instrumental consisting only of rim shots and raw distorted bass is overlaid with Joe Talbot’s hauntingly tuneless voice builds and builds, it’s then strangled into silence at the peak before the band is called back in with a manic “ONE! TWO!” and it’s IDLES business-as-usual – an unrelenting punk assault for the song’s remaining minute.

Next up ‘Never Fight a Man with a Perm’ showcases Talbot’s lyrical playfulness against the backdrop of muscular, posturing guitar and drums. It seems to operate in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of flyting with the titular permed man being the subject of vitriolic but poetic abuse, a highlight being, “oh my Roy, you look like a walking thyroid / You’re not a man you’re a gland”. The change in tempo from the verse sees the insults escalate into violence with its repeated chant of “concrete to leather!” It’s certainly a track that bears repeated listens to fully appreciate the genius of this one-sided slagging contest.

‘I’m Scum’ is another highlight with its brisk, skipping tempo evocative of some of the cheekier tracks on The Smiths’ Meat is Murder. Although difficult to pin down exactly the point being made here, the song seems to be written from the perspective of someone who's recently come into money and can’t shake off a deep-seated empathy for his native deprived community, despite his powerful contempt for his own working class. He’s a man who’ll “spit in your percolator” and “overtip the waiter” but who also “do[es]n’t care about the next James Bond / He kills for country, Queen and God / We don’t need another murderous toff /I’m just wondering where the high-street’s gone”.

The fourth track ‘Danny Nedelko’ is a moment that epitomises the album title as a perfect example of the positivity, despite everything, that IDLES so forcefully exude. Across the entire record, there is not a song so gleeful and energising; it’s about solidarity and not letting politicians exploit irrational prejudice – a celebration of the contribution immigrants make to the UK in post-Brexit Britain. The lyrics are mostly stripped back to the essentials, the core “flesh” and “bone” if you will; even so, there is room for the more eclectic here too in the line “My blood brother’s Freddy Mercury / A Nigerian mother of three”. Named after the singer of their Bristol contemporaries Heavy Lungs, this is an essential 2018 listen.

From pure exhilaration, we are plummeted into supreme sorrow and darkness mid-album, deeply personal despair is conveyed on heart-wrenching ‘June’ with its mournful organ setting the tone for an account of miscarriage. Talbot confesses that he must “pretend/[he]’ll mend” in the record’s lowest moment.

‘Cry To Me’, the album’s penultimate track is the band’s most spare offering. Thematically it’s loosely connected to the general idea of letting go of emotional repression and banishing toxic masculinity, but here the lyrics seem rather insubstantial compared to the consistent sharpness of the other songs. It’s crude and the lazy instrumental does little to redeem, even if we consider it an ironic nod to the lad rock it’s attempting to parody. The song’s lack of compelling narrative sets the scene for the confused closer ‘Rottweiler’.

What sets this post-punk album apart is its positivity, therefore it seems strange that the song IDLES choose to end their album with is so vague, paranoid and horribly mixed. The appeal of the band is their wit and deft lyricism presented over tight but basically derivative instrumentals, but here the vocals are drowned by muddy guitar, which descends, rather aptly one must admit, into barking and the sound of an angry crowd. ‘Rottweiler’ is a real head-scratcher in the track-listing but will make you want to return to the start of the record to remind yourself of what the band are capable of at their brilliant best.

Overall, IDLES have evolved since their bombastic debut. They have broadened their emotional and instrumental range, stamping their intelligent, compassionate and at times poetical political commentary on a Britain slowly waking up to the deprivation of its communities. 

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