“All is love” was the mantra to emerge from 2018’s outstanding Joy As An Act Of Resistance, a fearless, affirming album that offered a beam of hope and unity in the gathering darkness of Brexit, immigrant scapegoating and punishing austerity.
That record’s rallying anthem, Danny Nedelko, was a brilliant, hair-raising defence of British diversity, and the band’s singer Joe Talbot revealed himself as a razor-sharp, intelligent writer, as furious and vital as Joe Strummer, as witty, acerbic and close to the bone as the great, grizzled poet John Cooper Clarke. Meanwhile, the post-hardcore guitar playing of Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, and Adam Devonshire’s thrumming basslines were exhilarating exercises in visceral simplicity. Over the course of two albums, IDLES came from nowhere and smashed their way into the mainstream with a rapidity we’d begun to think was impossible for a British guitar band in the 21st century.
Two years on, things in the UK have really gone to the dogs. Polarisation reigns, COVID is rampant and IDLES don’t sound overly interested in light and shade. All is love has become which side are you on? Ultra Mono is a brutal doubling down of their position.
Musically, album three from the Bristol punks sounds incredible; lean, chiseled perfection. IDLES always have made a formidable noise, but the input of hip-hop producer Kenny Beats and Nick Launay results in a more direct, honed onslaught, Bowen and Kiernan’s playing given the space to land some devastating blows.
Ultra Mono was heralded by the release of Grounds and second single Model Village, a thrilling earworm driven by nagging riffing and a tremendously scruffy solo. Talbot steamed in like a cackling West Country Johnny Rotten before launching a, possibly tongue in check, withering attack on rural communities, “nine-fingered boys”, “gammons” and “homophobes by the tonne”. It left us wondering whether IDLES may, lyrically at least, be reverting to the lowest common denominator on their third album, running out of ideas even.
There are further suggestions that may be the case elsewhere on Ultra Mono. Talbot’s lyrics at times run the risk of tipping over from unflinchingly direct to lazy and undercooked. On opener War, he barks: “Wa-ching! That’s the sound of the sword going in, clack-clack, clack-a-clang-clang, that’s the sound of the gun going bang bang.” It’s not his finest work.
“I have got anxiety, it has got the best of meeee” and “our government hates the poor” are equally clumsy examples on the literally titled Anxiety, the half-baked lyric offset by a claustrophobic guitar squall that’s a perfect embodiment of the title. If things have become a little sloppy on the writing front, The Lover, introduced by big splashy snare hits, feels like an attempt to pre-empt criticism, Talbot spitting, “You say you don’t like our clichés, our sloganeering and our catchphrase”.
There are more considered moments. Grounds, a compelling collision of hip-hop production, bleeping synths and typically crunching powerchords, is Talbot’s barbed sloganeering at its best as he beats his chest and asks: “Do you hear that thunder? That’s the sound of strength in numbers”. Mr Motivator, all clattering drums, churning unison bends and propulsive lead lines, sees him land the impressively vengeful simile “like Kathleen Hanna with bear claws grabbing Trump by the pussy”. Ouch.
Amid all the testosterone and bile, Jenny Beth’s cameo elevates the choruses of Ne Touche Pas Moi, a commentary on sexual assault at gigs, complemented by a wanton riff that sounds like peak Graham Coxon. Another guest, Bad Seed Warren Ellis, makes Reigns’ dark soundscaping and burly angry bends all the more curdling with some discordant sax adornments. Other fleeting appearances on Ultra Mono include, surprisingly, jazz icon Jamie Cullum and The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow.
The angular solo on Kill Them With Kindness, slapping back off the studio walls, and Carcinogenic’s raking surfy chords are richly atmospheric moments, but again Talbot’s poorly scanned lyrics leave him sounding like a post-punk Mike Skinner after his powers had waned: “Where were you when the ship sank? Probably not queuing for food banks, probably waving the Union Jack, probably rallying for new tanks, probably to blow up the ice caps.” Not much is left to the imagination.
The most illuminating moment arrives on penultimate track A Hymn, a moody gothic slow-builder with shimmering leadlines, stabbing single-note riffs and a throbbing Peter Hook-like bassline. Over five minutes, it hints at the shady corners inhabited by fellow post-punk hopes The Murder Capital and one-time touring partners Fontaines DC “I wanna be loved, everybody does,” admits Talbot, suddenly vulnerable. If it’s a hint at an as yet unexplored future for IDLES, then it’s to be applauded.
Ultimately, Ultra Mono is going to divide opinion. The exceptional less-is-more production gives Talbot an elevated platform from which to preach. If you’re a devoted convert, his black and white reading on class war, the splintering of UK society and the “lunatics taking over the asylum” may be just what the doctor ordered in these unsettling times. Others may wonder whether it’s an exercise in lazy stereotyping that’s unlikely to win over many floating voters, and may serve only to entrench division. In that sense, it’s perhaps the perfect soundtrack for 2020.
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