Album Reviews

IDLES: Ultra Mono – “Like most of us in 2020, it’s all a little bit confusing”

In or out? IDLES return with their much anticipate third album.

IDLES are an odd beast. People seem to be bang or bust with them. Loved or loathed, with very few in-between, but those operating between the lines do exist – their feet splayed with toes scraping across the lines of both camps.

With the band’s third album Ultra Mono – the album that many U.K. listeners will suggest is the most anticipated of 2020 – the above sentiments add to the confusion for us who sit on the fence where the Bristol noise-makers are concerned.

In the lead-up to Ultra Mono, I’ll admit – I was sceptical. When you see a band ditch their T-shirts and jeans in favour of suits then it can have a certain death knell quality. Maybe that’s being over observant, but just think about. And, before you say it, no, Interpol doesn’t count. They were born in suits, after all…

After their successful (and very fucking good, mind you) second album, Joy As An Act of Resistance, IDLES have brought out the big guns on Ultra Mono.

SavagesJehnny Beth returns the favour after IDLES singer, Joe Talbot, featured on her excellent solo debut, To Love is To Live, earlier this year. There are also cameos from Jamie Cullum, The Jesus Lizard‘s David Yow and Warren Ellis of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and The Dirty Three.

So, with an all-star cast of indie royalty, does the album live up to the billing?

Well, Ultra Mono has its moments. For instance, the crushing bass rumble and bare-chested rage of opener, War, is quintessential IDLES.

Model Village is an accurate snapshot of what’s unfolding in pockets of Great Britain, while Ne Touche Pas Moi sees Talbot and Beth trading tirades back and forth across the channel.

A Hymn provides a nice comedown before the Daniel Johnston inspired closer, Danke – which pays open homage to guest vocalist, Yow, the song itself littered with those Jesus Lizard-esque drum lines that were prominent on the all conquering Goat.

Idles - Ultra Mono

While there are evidently bright moments on Ultra Mono, they are unfortunately weighed down too much with dead weight.

Anxiety, Kill Them With Kindness, Carcinogenic and Reigns are songs that feel lifeless, leaking with hollow slogans. Talbot‘s lyrics are almost like soundbites pulled from someone’s Twitter feed.

IDLES staunchest followers may suggest it’s the band being playful, goofy because, well… they can be. However, these tracks feel forced, rushed and hint at a band running on fumes.

When a band’s messaging revolves around the screaming shit storm that pours down on us courtesy of an incessantly incompetent Tory government, there’s only so many times you can overtly stick the boot in before the blows feel numb. It’s been done before and we most certainly felt the force first time around.

Without trying to stoke the fires of some futile war of the bands, where polemic narratives are concerned the likes of Sleaford Mods and Protomartyr are far better equipped, dispensing a mental nimbleness to keep rewriting the script.

On the other hand, IDLES have a way to go, and while this may seem like a band receding in the ideas department, it may just be a case of lockdown fatigue. Only time will tell, of course.

Community is something IDLES hold close to their heart. Truth be told, it’s the strongest thread that runs through their patchwork. Self-assessment and self improvement is also firmly on their agenda, and so it should be.

With Model Village, I’m not sure that addressing toxic masculinity while your guitarist trots around onstage in his briefs is the exact message you want to portray. Granted, with their ethos perhaps IDLES are aware of the irony? The cynics would call it hypocrisy, because well… that’s life, isn’t it? Hypocrisy in 2020 is a stock-in-trade and about as common as your next door neighbour getting a fucking Amazon parcel delivered.

We can all take the moral high ground when we want to, but the truth is that we all make mistakes. Despite having you believe they constantly live under a halo, don’t let the faceless keyboard warriors of social media tell you otherwise. It’s nothing different to the alleged hypocrisy IDLES have displayed from time to time.

No one’s perfect and IDLES aren’t immune from that. That’s what makes them real and arguably sets them apart from loss leader post-punk acts like Fontaines D.C and Black Midi, who, let’s be honest, have been mongrelising the genre for the last eighteen months.

While Joy As An Act of Resistance was certainly IDLES‘ pinnacle, Ultra Mono is an uneven follow-up, clearly lacking the raw urgency and focus of its older sibling. It doesn’t feel like it’s kicking against current concerns. If anything, it’s actually enmeshed in them.

Like most of us in 2020, it’s all a little bit confusing.

Ultra Mono is out now via Partisan Records.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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