Punk music of the early 21st century will most likely be divided into two eras: pre-IDLES and post-IDLES. Why IDLES has risen to eminence in the genre of rock isn’t entirely clear; one possible cause could be how deftly they can deviate between large punch-you-in-the-face-and-get-out-quick instrumentation and dour ballads. One could just as easily argue that it’s their ability to call back to a classic ’70s punk aesthetic while keeping the sound and subject matter extremely modern. However, most intriguing is how they have managed to reform the punk sentiment. Even as far back as its origins, punk has been a genre defined by its political messaging. With IDLES, their entire brand is centered around what it means to be an ally in this day and age. Traditionally, punk found its brand in a broader sense of progressivism, one that outcried against more general forms of injustice. IDLES’s approach narrows in on specific progressive ideas, like toxic masculinity and immigration. The band’s identity is so synonymous with this approach that a new subgenre was given for them: positive punk (which feels like a bit of a misnomer considering how a fraction of their songs could be described as “happy”). With their most recent album Ultra Mono, IDLES have expressed their progressive messaging more than they ever have before, but as a result they leave no room for nuance or personality to exist.
One can’t really talk about Ultra Mono without mentioning their most recent controversy: There have been several other UK punk bands who have called out IDLES for being disingenuous. They accused the band of speaking through a working class perspective even though they come from middle class backgrounds with college degrees. The band Fat White Family expanded on this idea in an essay they wrote, in which they label IDLES as hypocrites for supposedly purporting a mantra of tolerance towards everyone and yet castigate those who don’t share the same beliefs as them (aka small town traditionalists). Fat White Family said, “Labeling these people scum isn’t progressive, it’s decadent.” Honestly, this argument is a bit ridiculous. Shouldn’t this same line of reasoning be applied to US punk rock bands who have had plenty of success lambasting white suburbia for years? The entire statement feels a little bit apologetic of political incorrectness. With all of this happening a short while before the release of Ultra Mono, the new album felt like the perfect place to show why their branding became so popular in the first place. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end up being the brutal retort that everyone expected.
In general, Ultra Mono comes across as a pastiche of their former self. The vocal delivery by Joe Talbot borders on parody where lines like, “Wa-ching! / That’s the sound of the sword going in” feel less like the intended stab of a blade and more like a rusty hypodermic needle scraping against your veins. This also brings up the problem of the album’s lyrical content. Every message and takeaway point from each song sounds as if it was crafted by an ad campaign, as if IDLES tried to make music in the image of their fans’ preconceived notions about the band. This leads to a very disconnected listen and an occasional feeling of deification. Lines like “I am / I unify” don’t exactly win them any awards in humility. A perfect example of a song that just falls completely flat is “Ne Touche Pas Moi,” which expresses an intense message against cat-calling culture. The idea itself is interesting and fairly unexplored, but the lyrics don’t inspire any sort of call-to-action the way they should. They bring on Jehnny Beth as a feature in the song — which in normal circumstances would add a lot of weight to the theme — that they absolutely squander by not even giving her a verse, providing plenty of fodder towards the claim of disingenuousness. If there is any saving grace to this album, it’s that the instrumentation is up there with the best of their discography. Their previous album found them really experimenting with different styles to mixed results. Ultra Mono sees this experimentation and refines it until there isn’t a moment of wasted space.
IDLES are branding their messages with good intention, but sometimes they make it super difficult to believe. Ultra Mono — despite all the energy that it conveys — makes one feel exhausted by the end. One can only imagine that the man with his face getting pummelled by a large pink ball on the cover is supposed to signify IDLES’ haters, yet it inadvertently also represents the listener being beaten down by the band’s insistence that they are — in fact — woke.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at email@example.com
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