The Emperor’s New Briefs: IDLES’ Ultra Mono Reviewed

IDLES have been touted as the voice of a generation, but they may be better suited to novelty pop-up cafés, finds JR Moores

Credit: Tom Ham

Is it possible that IDLES are not all they’re cracked up to be? Their new album does open with a song that goes "Clack-clack, clack-a-clang clang, that’s the sound of the gun going bang-bang." To think people still mock Black Sabbath for rhyming "masses" with "masses." Compared to IDLES’ ‘War’, the beginning of Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ is up there with Wilfred Owen.

It would be unfair to single out one line that could’ve been written by a six-year-old, so let’s pick another. Surely even Brian "angsty rhyming couplets" Molko of Placebo fame would think twice before writing "I have got anxiety/ It has got the best of meeeeeeeee!" Perhaps it would ring truer if it wasn’t barked quite so forcefully. Elsewhere, ‘Danke’ rips off the most famous Daniel Johnston song, while ‘Grounds’ borrows the giant’s refrain from Jack & The Beanstalk. It’s no surprise to learn that Joe Talbot was still finishing off his lyrics in the recording booth. That technique might work well for the free-styling, quick-witted rappers who IDLES admire. It’s less successful for a Bristol band who look like they’ve just set up a pop-up café specialising in Tangfastics Haribo and are supposed to be the voice of their generation.

Other topics on their difficult third album include austerity, the bloodthirsty British Empire, class division, bigotry, the "haters" of IDLES’ clichés and admirable boxers. Unfortunately, most of it sounds like Jason Williamson jogged into a pillar box.

The guest musicians include David Yow and Jamie Cullum, a VIP list that draws attention to IDLES’ own inadequacy. IDLES’ by-numbers rock plod has none of the sensitive jazz swing of The Jesus Lizard nor can it match the unhinged ferocity of Cullum at his most feral. Maybe IDLES should’ve studied the former’s career more closely, especially The Jesus Lizard’s regret at using beats and loops on their 1998 swansong Blue because it ended up sounding like (in Yow’s words) a "Trent Reznor abortion." In their own attempt to keep things spicy, IDLES have added some hip-hoppy embellishments to their same old rowdy shtick. These have been supplied by a man named Kenny Beats, presumably because he was the first bloke listed under ‘B for beats’ in the Yellow Pages.

What’s more, as muffled and tumbling offstage as he often was, David Yow sure had some pipes on him. Reflecting on the handful of Jesus Lizard tribute bands he’s stumbled across, Yow said, "the part that struck me a few times was that the vocalist is simply not paying attention. They would just scream everything, and I didn’t do that. I did a lot of quiet shit. I did a lot of whispery stuff, some singing stuff, whatever." All Talbot does is alternate between shouty talking and talky shouting. It can get tiresome.

IDLES and other folk who followed in the footsteps of Sleaford Mods and Fat White Family have been praised for challenging masculinity. But to do this in such a routinely chest-beating way seems self-defeating. In the post-punk years, Glasgow-based bands like Orange Juice reacted against the overt machismo of their city (and wider culture in general) by making music and dressing in a way that was radically gentle, an "exaggerated wimpiness" as Simon Reynolds called it. That seems a cleverer and probably more productive and inclusive way to defy macho nonsense than stripping down to your briefs (as moustachioed IDLES guitarist Mark Bowen does at every opportunity), chanting like a hooligan (Talbot’s default mode) and writing songs so generically bellowing they could be filed under Sham 69.

IDLES’ hearts are in the right place but so was Tony Benn’s and his last album was shit. Furthermore, as so many success stories in the history of rock & roll have demonstrated, it’s hard to maintain dignity when the brand demands exponential growth. The promotional campaign for 2018’s Joy As An Act Of Resistance centred around the damage that alcohol had done to the band and its members. This was followed by the launch of IDLES’ own craft lager. The sixth track of Ultra Mono rants against the breed of patriotic gammons who populate provincial villages, so expect IDLES’ imminent relocation, relocation to a house, a very big house, in the country.

If you want stuff that’s noisy and unruly and ugly and angry and doesn’t ask its most loyal fans to cough up £90 for the exact same LP in three different colours, then why settle for the first thing that’s forced down your throat by stylish taprooms, Steve Lamacq and the Hyundai Mercury Music Prize? Why not delve into the catalogues of Box Records, Hominid Sounds and labels like that? It’s just a thought. Orange Juice isn’t our only option.

Three albums in and the hype has died down. The ideas are drying up. The lack of substance is wholly exposed. It’s time for the critics – what remains of them – to remove the gloves. "I think one of the greatest things about the English is the way we hate success, which is always said to be one of the worst things about us," insists the cartoonist Martin Rowson. Apparently picking on the successful is a bitter, mean-spirited and envious ritual. It’s actually egalitarian in nature, helping to level things out by jerking back down – if only symbolically – those who have become too big for their boots (or their briefs). Of this particular English tradition, IDLES would surely approve.

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