IDLES have always been dead serious about giving a damn, about balancing aggression with compassion and humor that made their breakthrough Joy As an Act of Resistance such a compelling listen. True to the title, the record was a middle finger to those who were seeking to impede progress on highlights like “Never Fight a Man with a Perm” and “I’m Scum” and an arm-in-arm show of solidarity on tracks like the anti-xenophobia “Danny Nedelko”. Musically, it was a riff-heavy blast of noise rock, and lyrically, it mostly stayed on the right side of clever vs. cringe.
The follow-up, Mono, gave those of us on edge during the 2020 Presidential election an anthem in “Mr. Motivator” (“Let’s seize the day / All hold hands, chase the pricks away”) and a memorable music video. Mono is mostly another guitar-centric blast of adrenaline, but you could hear the band flirting with hip-hop on songs like “Grounds.” And the politics were still personal on songs like “Ne Touche Pas Moi”, and “Carcinogenic”.
Since then, IDLES have been slowly pumping the brakes on the guitar attack in favor of moody, foreboding atmospherics and a look inward rather than aiming at the enemies at the gates. Almost a year later, the band returned with Crawler. Produced by acclaimed hip-hop producer Kenny Beats, this record leaned harder into atmospheric menace and flirted with poppier arrangements but still had some tracks with the bludgeoning riffs that are their calling card.
Press notes for TANGK identify this as IDLES’ “love album” and note that the word is uttered 29 times in just under 40 minutes. This statement is so on-brand for IDLES, who perennially have their heart in the right place but can come off as earnest or try-hard. Singer Joe Talbot says, “This is our album of gratitude and power. All love songs. All is love.” But never fear, Talbot and company haven’t gotten all mushy. This is a hard-won, mostly unromantic notion of love. Kenny Beats is back in the producer chair, and alongside him is Nigel Godrich. The record certainly sounds like a collaboration between the two, with Godrich’s otherworldly sounds butting up against the low-end rumble and rhythmic thumb Beats provides. This production suits the band well.
As with Crawler, TANGK seeks to set a mood more than pummel from the start. “Idea 1” features eerie piano and scraping guitars. “Gift Horse” has its share of amusing lines to pad its steadily unnerving forward motion. “Pop Pop Pop” is a hype anthem for us; in it, Talbot brags about being the cheerleader and how he revels in freudenfreude. He wants good things for all of us. It’s also filled with some very cringey lines like “She’s a freight train, man / Watch her swing.” Elsewhere, “Roy” has another groan-inducing line: “Baby, I’m a smart man / But I’m dumb for you.”
This is the central rub with IDLES; their songs point toward making the world a better, safer place for everyone, but some of the sentiments land with a thud. It’s difficult to be critical of a group so focused on bringing good energy to the world through their music, and that they do it with some genuinely unsentimental and downright ominous arrangements makes it all the more interesting. However, sometimes the lyrics work overtime when a little more humor or subtlety would really do the job. TANGK is missing some of that satiric bite of Joy As an Act of Resistance and Mono.
TANGK shows IDLES hungry to master new territory, and they were wise not to front-load their new moves as they did on Crawler. One very successful experiment is the piano-led, quietly leveling “A Gospel”, a heartrending breakup song. Talbot sounds wounded as he sings, “Delete my number / I’m no more” and “Just tell me darling / And I’ll be your past”, two particularly gut-punching lines.
“Dancer” features cameos from James Murphy and Nancy Whang from LCD Soundsystem. This is one of the songs that sounds closest to classic IDLES, with one of the best vocal performances from Talbot, testifying that he gives himself over to the crowd as long as they give it all back. It’s big, anthemic, and easy to love. “Jungle” also has a riff and rhythm that recalls the finer moments of Joy As an Act of Resistance.
“Grace” is another track where the path to cringe is paved with good intentions. It is an appealing stretch musically, though. “Hall and Oates” is a raw rocker and a big silly love song about a man who makes Talbot hear the titular duo whenever he’s around. Unfortunately, his love is declared with this line: “Word to your mother / I really really love my brother.” They do save two of the strongest tracks for the big finish. “Gratitude” builds to a breathless second half, and closer to “Monolith” is a show-stopper, a moody dirge that ends with a saxophone.
IDLES are an easy band to like. They present a vision for hard rock that’s inclusive, empathic, and open-hearted. They have steadily introduced new wrinkles into their sound that keep things interesting. While TANGK is a mostly successful effort that showcases continued musical growth, it’s hard not to miss the bite that once came with the bark.