With their stunning and critically lauded debut album Brutalism, Idles emerged as the punk band modern Britain has been waiting for. Over squalling guitars and brawny basslines frontman, Joe Talbot articulated a pivotal and divisive period in British history in his own outspoken, indomitable fashion. Boiling over with a potent mix of anger, cynicism and tragi-comedy, Butalism took a cleaver to British society, targeted the Tories, saluted the great British underdog, the NHS, all while coming to terms with the earth-shattering loss of Talbot’s mother.
With the world seemingly more hellbent on self-destruction, you might reasonably assume, that the Bristol-based band would return with more of the same. However, on Joy As an Act of Resistance the band have collectively reached the conclusion that anger, recrimination, and bitterness will eventually eat you up. On their second album, the band have exchanged those ideas for compassion, tolerance, and inclusivity, in full knowledge that these are the characteristics that lie at the core of a progressive society. Additionally, the music acts as a broad guide to how to look after ourselves by promoting mindfulness, in the hope that by, first healing ourselves, we have a better chance of improving our society.
Opener “Colossus” sounds as imposingly gargantuan as the name would suggest. It’s a doomy, ominous, minimalistic song with only the constant rim taps and a single, thick rippling bass note framing frontman Joe Talbot’s low, stalking vocals as he explores confession in his own unique way. Mixing non-sequiturs and genuinely arresting lines (“I am my father’s son / His shadow weighs a tonne”) the song slowly and menacingly prowls forward, growing in volume and intensity. Straining under its own weight the song teeters on the point of collapse before launching into a stunning juggernaut of noise with Talbot name-checking everyone from former WWF wrestling stars to Christ and Evel Knievel.
“Never Fight a Man With a Perm” is a barreling, crashing song that lurches from grunge to full-on hardcore and shows the band unafraid to experiment. Initially, coming across as a pithy takedown of the entitled elite (“A heathen from Eaton / On a bag of Michael Keaton”) with each lyrical couplet setting up a returning verbal backhand (“He hates me / I Like that” and “I bark / He bites back”). However, it would be wrong to assume that Talbot is simply mocking his targets despite lines such as, “you look like a walking thyroid”. As with the rest of the album, Talbot acknowledges that it’s easy to mock but promoting compassion and understanding is far healthier as he ends with the line, “I’ll shut my mouth / Let’s hug it out.”
“Scum” sees Talbot celebrate those labels that society uses to pigeonhole, judge and rule (working class, leftie, minimum wage). It’s a song for the forgotten, the downtrodden and the underprivileged but also one that cleverly turns those derogatory labels on their head and revels in the inclusivity, sense of community and identity they offer. To that end, the chorus is a reminder not to underestimate the people as he defiantly declares, “this snowflake’s an avalanche”.
If ever Idles were going to write a pop hit then “Danny Nedelko” would be it. Imbued with a pop dynamic, it’s a punchy, upbeat, singalong anthem about a socially pertinent issue – in this case, immigration. More precisely, it accentuates the positives of living in a multicultural and ethnically diverse society. The song acts as a timely reminder that immigration provides the bedrock of British society (“My blood brother’s Freddie Mercury/ A Nigerian mother of three”). Rather than allow those in positions of political power to define actual human beings as a threat to societal values and interests, diversity and the acceptance of those from other countries should be enshrined as one of our core British values. (“Fear leads to panic / Panic leads to pain / Pain leads to anger / Anger leads to hate).
Unexpectedly, considering the title, “Love Song” levels the album out. Over atmospheric, doomy post-punk, Talbot spits out heartfelt pronouncements of love, statements that in other’s hands would be crooned. Unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, Talbot recognizes that he is his best self with that person who has pledged their faith, commitment, and fidelity to him. Both “Love Song” and the heartbreaking “June” provide the emotional backbone to the album.
“June” describes, in unflinching detail, Talbot’s pain at losing his daughter to stillbirth. An unimaginable feeling that he somehow articulates. His resolute need to channel that agony into words is, not only, clearly a cathartic experience for him, it is also clearly done to help others cope with similar trauma.
This idea of appreciating the self and engaging with one’s own emotions flows throughout the album. “Samaritans” is a concise, fluent dissection of modern, toxic masculinity (“The mask of masculinity / Is a mask that’s wearing me”). With bassist Dev’s steely, basslines again anchoring the song, Talbot gets to the nub of toxic masculinity and the way in which successive generations have unquestioningly adhered to an outdated notion of what that means (“This is why / You never see your father cry”). Elsewhere, on “Television” Talbot implores people to ignore obsession with appearance and appreciate themselves for who they truly are (“If someone spoke to you / Like you spoke to / I’d put their teeth through / Love yourself”).
“Great” faces the calamitous clusterfuck that is Brexit head on, but not in the way you would expect. Initially, it appears as if Talbot is, again, sneering at small minded people who voted for Brexit based on spurious ideas of Britishness but in actuality, it’s a lot more sympathetic. Rather than finger pointing, Talbot finds hope in the similarities that bind us all no matter which side of the political fence we sit on. He sounds genuinely optimistic that bridges can be mended. Communities can be repaired and flourish. Concluding, that we are bigger than the sum of our parts and at our strongest when united.
There is a profound sense of joy on the album. A loud, often frenetic, intense joy but joy all the same. The album extols the virtues of inclusion, of community, of love. Throughout there is a sense of the band’s unwavering determination to encourage mindfulness and accept vulnerability. While many punk albums look to encourage a wider, smash the system uprising, Idles focus on the revolution that comes from within. Change has to begin somewhere, and there is no better place to start than with Joy As an Act of Resistance.