Album #256: Idles – Ultra Mono

  • Released: 2020
  • Origin: Bristol, England
  • Label: Partison
  • Best Track: Model Village

Right, stop what you’re doing – the new Idles album is out!

In fact, there was a whole stack of exciting albums out yesterday – Deftones, Bob Mould, Sufjan Stevens, Cabbage, Surfer Blood – but I have touched any but this one yet.

Idles (who I say are post-punk even though they disagree) are THE band of the last few years for me. I’d say I find Sleaford Mods more instantly cathartic, and comparing like for like I possibly prefer the two Fontaines D.C. albums, but something about Idles’ blunt, angry yet positive and kind message has just connected with me. They’ve changed my life basically, and made me see and think differently.

In the build-up to the release of third album Ultra Mono, I’ve liked each single more than the one before it. First up was ‘Mr. Motivator’, which I thought was kind of an average song with highly enjoyable lyrics (“Like Kathleen Hanna with bear craws grabbing Trump by the pussy”). After that came the more hard-hitting, sure be to set-list highlight ‘Grounds’. Then I was really impressed by the more dark and mellow ‘A Hymn’, even though I thought it a surprising choice of single, and then ‘Model Village’ came along a nailed 2020 mid-Brexit Britain (or more specifically England) in four bone-splitting minutes, complete with an awesome video by legendary director Michel Gobdry.

I’m not surprised that ‘Model Village’ and ‘A Hymn’ are the best tracks on the album, although other high points include the rumbling attack of ‘Carcinagenic’ and Joe Talbot’s eloquent shrug of the shoulders to his critics on ‘The Lover’. The double meaning on ‘Reigns’, where Talbot emplores you to pull his reins/reigns while also quizzing on hierarchy and “blue blood”, is genius, if indeed it is deliberate!

Musically and production-wise, the record packs a hefty punch, particularly the superb drumming of Jon Beavis. But the album does have some iffy moments, and I’m only being critical because my expectations of Idles are so high.

For a start, ‘Anxiety’ sounds like a B-side, and an inferior version of ‘1049 Gotho’ off their first album. I’m not big on either of the tracks that bookend the album – ‘War’ and ‘Danke’. They both seem like dins that are so frenetic and full-on, they leave themselves with nowhere to go. ‘Danke’ in particular feels throwaway after ‘A Hymn’, which would have been a more powerful closer.

Then there’s some of the lyrics. In his defence, Talbot has stressed that he wants to keep his words simple and direct, but ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’ overeggs this mantra. It’s actually a good song, supported by vocals from Savages’ Jehnny Beth, but the well-intended message is clear enough without the need to shout ‘Consent!’ five times. That’s not going to stop sexual assault, nor does it do anything for the song but disrupt it.

Ultra Mono feels a bit like Oasis’ third album Be Here Now, which was decent if listened to in isolation, but didn’t really do anything different or better than the two before it. It’s probably a four-star album when Brutalism (2017) and Joy as an Act of Resistance (2018) were five stars. Still, that makes it a good album in its own right. It’s also fair to say I didn’t exactly fall in love with the other two Idles albums on first listen, so let’s persevere with it.

EDIT 9/1/21: I’ve thought a bit more about ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’ since writing this. What’s crossed my mind since is that while there are bands speaking out about sexual harassment at gigs, most of them are female. I think this is the first time I’ve heard a male artist directly address the subject, and Joe Talbot is brave to do that. It needs men to speak out about it, and if this song becomes a cross-gender anthem while driving the message home, then job done. I still think it’s a bit clumsy lyrically though, not helped by the mangled French!

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