IDLES don’t care what you think. Or at least they don’t care what you think about them. Or they care enough to make sure you know they don’t care. After a couple stunning punk albums (most notably 2018’s Joy As an Act of Resistance), the band found their natural backlash. It seems that Joe Talbot isn’t Joe Strummer (as if that’s what anyone was looking for), and rage and defiance are still subject to particular codes. IDLES, though, don’t have much to say to that, except to put out another furious album, expanding the scope of their protest while maintaining their wry view of the world for Ultra Mono.
“Mr. Motivator” answers doubts about the band’s approach to songwriting. “I intend to go go go / Like Conor McGregor with a samurai sword on roller blades,” Talbot sings. He runs through a bunch of strange and often hilarious metaphors and asks, “How d’you like them clichés?” If IDLES have been known to play with a cliché or two, with a slogan tossed in here or there, it doesn’t mean they’ve been empty lyrics. Sometimes a bunch of overdriven guitars and a sweaty drummer don’t need Zizek to get their point across. IDLES get it, offering both catharsis and direction as they struggle for a movement.
The opener, “War”, goes to battle against war. Talbot vocalizes the sounds of destruction, naming them for us, as the band throws us into a sort of post-hardcore battle zone. The album doesn’t relent much; IDLES move from opening salvo to energetic struggles, pausing just enough to march at a quick pace. “Do you hear that thunder? / That’s the sound of strength in numbers,” Talbot sings on “Grounds”. It’s the sort of rallying cry that draws fans and detractors, but its effectiveness lies in its sincere enthusiasm.
The group boil their message down to a fine clarity. Joined by Jehnny Beth, IDLES shouts about consent on “Ne Touche Pas Moi”. The song puts it succinctly with shouts of “Consent! Consent! Consent!” over danceable noise. IDLES don’t offer compelling couplets on the #MeToo era; their job remains to make those issues tangible. All of this music begs for live shows, for embodiment, and “Ne Touche Pas Moi” makes physical space for that, even in a crowded club where it belongs.
All of this work doesn’t quite shake the haters, so the band responds a second time with “The Lover”, where Talbot finds support in his community’s unity to give a kiss-off to all the haters. If anyone doesn’t like “our clichés, our sloganeering and our catchphrase,” Talbot has some suggestions for what they can eat. The song grinds a little, and IDLES play their best moving forward rather than fighting back. It makes closer “Danke” that much more of a release, a post-punk number that offers, yes, a cliché, but in the construction of a shelter.
By that time of that ending, a shelter might be in order, but not so much as a respite from critics but as a launching pad for new adventures as a “house that allows you to fail”. IDLES know how hard it is out there, now more than ever, but that’s all the more reason for raised fists and unceasing resistance. Last time they did it joyfully, and before that, they did it brutally. Now those elements come together, whether for a fight or a moment of gratitude.