Photo Credit: Ed Miles
“I’m guessing you cannot tell from my tone // I mean business,” lead singer Joe Talbot quips on “Kill Them with Kindness” from IDLES’ recent full-length release Ultra Mono. We know he’s being sardonic, since from the very first lyric uttered on the Bristol, England rock band’s socially and politically honed third studio album, the absolute seriousness of what they are trying to convey becomes all too clear. Even when they’re being comparatively ambiguous their point still gets across, as on the song “Grounds”: “I smell the blood of a million sons // A million daughters from a hundred thousand guns // Not taught by our teachers // On our curriculum.”
Lyrics – and in turn, the messages contained within – are clearly front-and-center on Ultra Mono. Talbot talk-sings on many of the tracks, and several songs drop all instruments but drums during the vocal – a musical device once successfully employed by the Clash, another quite socially conscious British band. In fact, at least one track on Ultra Mono focuses on problems, which – at least in the form they’re presented here – are essentially exclusive to the UK. “Where were you when the ship sank? // Probably not queuing for food banks // Probably waving your Union Jack // Probably rallying for new tanks,” they sing on “Carcinogenic.” Still, most of the themes are universal.
As streamlined as the album’s sound is for the most part, it’s still not without surprises. Lyrically, “The Lover” seems principally concerned with exactly that, while late entry “A Hymn” takes a compelling last-minute turn into Goth rock and an overall approach reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails. “Village” is a catchy, almost a pop song, while Talbot also attempts – successfully – a number of different vocal approaches: for example on “Reign”, he sings along to the beat in an almost dance-style. At the end of the day Talbot doesn’t have the most distinct voice in rock or even in punk, not even among bands that have debuted in the past few years. Nonetheless, he delivers every word as though he were all too willing to sacrifice his last breath to convey the message.
Some listeners might be confused by – or even take issue with – the timeliness of some of the subject matter that IDLES chooses to spotlight. Opening cut “War”, for example, is an unabashed anti-war anthem, as the title might suggest (“Send Johnny in to open fire // Send Sally to the sandbox, baby // We’re dying for the stone-faced lies.”) Neither the UK nor the US is – thankfully – currently involved in a major military conflict, so some might wonder what’s the point (particularly as the world currently has no shortage of more immediate concerns). But Talbot and IDLES serve to remind us that some problems haven’t simply vanished just because they’re seemingly absent from a particular week’s headlines.
Among the issues more in the current consciousness that are addressed – albeit partially in French – is that of sexual misconduct towards woman,on “No Touche Pas Moi” (“Don’t Touch Me”) (“This is a saw-off for the cat-callers // This is a pistol for the wolf whistle // ‘Cause your body is your body // And it belongs to nobody but you”). The track is also probably the most traditionally punk on the album, with a riff that bears a strong resemblance to genre forbearers the Sex Pistols.
IDLES have apparently openly objected to being called “punk,” which, ironically – you guessed it – actually makes them all the more punk. However, they may have (yet another) point in that trying to label the band or their music should not be anyone’s primary concern, lest it distract anyone from what it is they’re trying to say. But either way: Ultra Mono is ultra-relevant, ultra-rocking, and ultra-good.