It’s no easy task to follow up two records as strong and Brutalism and Joy as an Act of Resistance. Even with the bar set so high, IDLES have once again nailed it with a meaningful batch of instant-hits entitled Ultra Mono. Their third album, due for release this Friday, September 25th (preorder it here), is one we could blast around someone who’s never heard these heroes before and say proudly, “This is what they’re all about.” You can already sense how sick these songs are going to be in the live setting too (when that is safely possible). Fans who heard the three new-LP songs they spaced out during their lock-in sessions at Abbey Road Studios last month got a long-distance taste of Ultra Mono’s innate live-show energy. There are mosh pit freak-out opportunities (on par with the break in “Colossus”) tucked into thrilling riffs that trigger thrashing on their own. When we talked to Joe Talbot in ‘18, the guys were shopping for pedals at Eastside Music Supply in Tennessee, and he teased, “We’re just going to work on album three now. We’ve got a song in the bag.” Maybe the pedals they picked out during our call made the record, or maybe we’re just dreamers, but it’s cool to consider that when you hear how creatively they come into play throughout Ultra Mono’s twelve tracks.
The vibrant album artwork painted by Russell Oliver (who also created the cover for IDLES’ “Mercedes Marxist” single last year) shows someone getting knocked out with a giant pink sphere (kind of like a rosy Rover). It’s a rich, realistic oil piece open to many interpretations. Perhaps IDLES are the big pink balloon, proudly knocking out that toxic masculinity they’ve always rejected. Perhaps the bubble is 2020, and we’re all the guy getting beaten up by this ridiculous year. It also works as an artistic rendering of how much Ultra Mono has been knocking our socks off. Ultra Mono was “sonically constructed to capture the feeling of a hip-hop record” with production work from Kenny Beats, Nick Launay, and Adam “Atom” Greenspan, and guest appearances by Jehnny Beth of Savages, David Yow of The Jesus Lizard, Warren Ellis of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and jazz singer Jamie Cullum. The LP starts in full gear with “War,” a grinding and intense treat for future tangled sweaty crowds. “War” is actually about being anti-war, as Talbot soon reveals over enticing swells of guitar noise, but not after some onomatopoeias to convey the sounds of battle: “Wa-ching! That’s the sound of the sword going in / Clack-clack, clack-a-clang clang! That’s the sound of the gun going bang-bang…” Those critics who rip on the simplicity of lyrics like these (hot air) are missing out on something big: they’re fun as hell to sing along – so, hit made. Lyrics do not need to be complex for a rock song to work (goo goo g’joob, dude).
IDLES are firing on all cylinders in second track (and second single) “Grounds,” which shines with timely gems like “Not a single thing has ever been mended / By you standing there and saying you’re offended,” and of course, its core message, “Do you hear that thunder? That’s the sound of strength in numbers.” Talbot stated upon its release, “We wanted to write a song that embodied self-belief, and gave us self-belief — a counter-punch to all the doubt we build up from all the noise we so easily let in. We wanted to make the sound of our own hearts’ marching band, armed with a jack hammer and a smile. We wanted to make the sound of our engine starting.” Using a neat delay pedal effect – which Lee Kiernan & Mark Bowen sweetly took the time to teach everyone in this how-to video – the boys transform one note into a glitchy bl-dldl-ee-oop sound that never gets old. They also put out a guitar how-to for the following rager, “Mr. Motivator.” AF Gangers like us surely know this first single – released in May – quite well and don’t need anyone to explain how swell it is, so suffice it to say that we freaking love it too. It’s especially satisfying how Talbot’s lyrics mess with detractors again: after strings of celebrity crossovers – “Like Kathleen Hanna with bear claws grabbing Trump by the pussy” – he asks in a wry tone, “How’d you like them clichés?” It has always been a blast rooting for Talbot, so we can’t help but grin when he gets the last word with quips embedded right in the music.
While the song title “Anxiety” may not seem enjoyable at first, bursts of guitar fury and Jon Beavis’ memorable drumming ensure it’s the best kind of anxiety attack. In a way that hearkens back to “1049 Gotho,” IDLES continue to shed light on mental health problems with empathetic lyrics: “I’ve got anxiety / it has got the best of me / satisfaction guaranteed” Talbot sings with relatable frustration. Incisive lines – like “Our government hates the poor / cold leaders, cold class war / keeping drugs you can’t afford / so the poor can’t find the cure” – reaffirm how there really is plenty to be anxious about. Next standout “Kill Them With Kindness,” which epitomizes the IDLES ethos, provides a soothing transition with its a slick fake-out start: you think you’re hearing some saccharine piano music for a solid thirty-three seconds before IDLES ride in on a gnarly beat. In addition to that old kindness adage on which so many of us were raised, IDLES instill a crucial tip for this vitriolic era: “If you want to beat the machine, keep your teeth clean.”
IDLES are on the get-a-major-director-to-make-your-video level nowadays, and they’ve certainly earned that status, so it’s extra nice to see it happen. The brightly-colored animated music video for “Model Village” was directed by brothers Michel and Olivier Gondry. The song’s much-discussed lyrics depict that kind of town where hypocrisy abounds: “…Homophobes by the tonne in the village / A lot of overpriced drugs in the village / A lot of half-pint thugs in the village / Model car, model wife, model village / Model far, model right, model village…” Tackling another injustice in the following track, IDLES focus on the importance of respecting each other’s space. “Ne Touche Pas Moi” – French for “Don’t touch me” – features fierce vocals from another hero we adore, Jehnny Beth of Savages. Talbot’s reminder, “‘Cause your body is your body and it belongs to nobody but you,” switches to first-person the next time around (my body) and becomes even more empowering. Jehnny Beth and Talbot alternate lines in the chorus, which goes, “Ne Touche Pas Moi / This is my damn space / Ne Touche Pas Moi / This is your damn space / Ne Touche Pas Moi / This is my damn space / Consent! Consent! Consent!”
IDLES cook up sunny rock and roll vibes in “Carcinogenic,” during which Talbot turns toxic aspects of society into another rhythmic shout-along. “Working people down to the bone on the knees nine to five every day of the week is… carcinogenic! / There’s a minimum wage while your boss takes a raise as he lies through his brand new teeth is… carcinogenic! / Overworking working nurses and teachers whilst you preach austerity is… carcinogenic!” Maintaining all that exciting momentum, “Reigns” is embellished with a volume-knob-cranking effect, killer bass work from Adam Devonshire, and incisive questions from Talbot, including “How does it feel to have blue blood coursing through your veins? … How does it feel to have shanked the working classes into dust? … How does it feel to have won the war that nobody wants?”
Next anthem “The Lover” revolves around the proclamation, “Fuck you, I’m a lover,” and also repeats the delightfully seething line: “I want to cater for the haters – eat shit.” Though IDLES briefly stray from their aforementioned urge to “Kill Them With Kindness” while serving up that spicy sentiment, it’s a reminder that they really don’t care what the haters think, and you shouldn’t either; an equally valuable lesson for the kiddos. And then Ultra Mono keeps you hooked when things slow down. You know how some heavy songs can be so emotionally draining, they are, sadly, more likely to get skipped later on? We love “June” on JAAAOR, for example, but all that exposed pain can be brutal to take in on an everyday car ride. Ultra Mono’s cathartic penultimate track, “A Hymn,” is very different – it’s slow, heavy, and car-ride-friendly. It’s less of a heart-smasher and more of a catchy slow-burner centered on a raw feeling: “I want to be loved / Everybody does.” With gripping delivery, Talbot evokes the struggle of trying to please others when you’re not taking care of yourself: “…I lost ten pounds for the wedding / I played happy ’til my teeth hurt…” Even moments of success come with immediate self-doubt: “We made it / Shame.”
After the pulse-accelerating intro of last track “Danke,” Talbot predicts, “True love will find you in the end” amid fits of vicious Beavis drumming. Proving Ultra Mono to be an album with zero skippers or lulls whatsoever, this one is just as infectious as the rest. It’s such a strong finale that we could even see it becoming a “Rottweiler” kind of jam-out that closes out future live shows. In “Danke,” Talbot also sings, “I’ll be your hammer / I’ll be your nail,” which really touches on how this band bolsters their fans. And the way the record ends – with these sincere promises of love and support – is a perfect fit for IDLES and the special community that surrounds them.
Article: Olivia Isenhart