Idles is one of the biggest buzzbands in recent punk/post-punk music (even though the band refuses to identify as “punk.”) The British band rose to the limelight with the release of studio albums “Brutalism” and “Joy as an Act of Resistance” in 2017 and 2018, respectively. They made a name for themselves by touting boldly leftist views with incredibly infectious energy and anger. Previous songs have critiqued things like toxic masculinity, white privilege, Brexit, and have commented on issues like immigration and social classes. A new Idles album seems perfectly suited to the political climate that has developed this year. There are moments that rise to the occasion and will bring the riotous energy of a punk show to your headphones, but other moments end up falling flat.
The album’s worst points either feel akin to an anti-drunk driving high school play (“Ne Touche Pas Moi”) or get too caught up in attacking their detractors (“The Lover”). Idles are often criticized for relying heavily on cliches in their lyrics, and their cliches have never been worse. The impassioned yelps of “Consent!” in Ne Touche Pas Moi just feels absurd. “The Lover” is perhaps the most cringe-worthy song on the album. It features the lyrics “You say you don’t like my cliches / Our sloganeering and our catchphrase” despite the song centering around the line “Fuck you, I’m a lover.” It is ridiculous and misguided anger that no one wants to hear.
A few songs are able to bring urgency and a leftist perspective without relying on bumper sticker politics. “Model Village” effectively critiques small towns and their unique brand of racism and hateful rhetoric. The song still manages to have fun, both by providing lines like “A lot of half-pint thugs in the village” and by simply giving enough energy to make you wish live music still existed. “Carcinogenic” is the type of shout-along song soaked in existential dread that this year needed. Lead singer Joe Talbot captures the anxiety of being alive in a time when it feels as if every news headline is worse than the last. The song comments on things like wage theft, climate change, military spending, and each jab hits quickly and effectively.
In “Grounds,” Talbot screams “Sayin’ my race and class ain’t suitable / So, I raise my pink fist and say, ‘Black is beautiful’”. It feels like an act of performative white allyship, and does not at all have the type of resonance Talbot was going for. This sort of act feels particularly brainless given Idles was just under fire for planning a tour with only white male openers. Idles insist that they reached out to female-fronted punk acts, like Pakistani-Norweigian Nadine Shah, but all the musicians were either not available to tour, or asked for too much money. Shah responded by saying Idles offered her only a few hundred pounds. Idles denies this and has tried to skew the conversation towards getting more women and black individuals interested in punk music by way of government legislation. Using government inaction as a scapegoat instead of making any effort to create real change is peak performative allyship.
In its entirety, “Ultra Mono” feels misguided and uncertain. For the most part, Idles sound upset at people for calling them cliche or performatively woke, and then proceed to be more cliche and performatively woke than they ever have before. There are a few diamonds in the rough on this album, but it seems that Idles have lost some of their shine. Or maybe we are all just tired of only looking to white men for political commentary.
Listen to the album: