Photo Credit: Tom Ham
Ever since Bristol’s IDLES rushed to widespread acclaim with their second album Joy as an Act of Resistance back in 2018, they have arguably remained the most important band within the so-called post-punk revival. Like so many other groups, they are returning from the pandemic as a more reflective and wiser band, which turned out to be exactly what was needed for them to progress artistically. Last year with Ultra Mono, the band’s first No. 1 album in the U.K., many concluded that while their ever-so-restless musical punch is admirable, it lacked some lyrical substance. So, when singer and lyricist Joe Talbot revealed in an interview for Consequence how on this album he “tried to be more of a storyteller” than he used to, as well as “more poetic, which I think is more honest, in an ironic way, than trying to be as blunt and down the line as possible,” it almost feels as if he had heard everyone’s prayers.
CRAWLER features some of his best songwriting to date. “He wanted love // He wanted soul // That’s not enough // To make him whole,” he sings in the bleak opener “MTT 420 RR”, about how he once crashed his car while being high. Remaining true to themselves, the band isn’t trying to make it sound beautiful, though. “The swell of heaven on my dashboard // I can see my spinal cord rip high.” Ouch. Poetic maybe, but far from beautiful. In other words, perfect from a band like IDLES.
Almost all of CRAWLER is about Talbot’s lifelong struggles with various kinds of addiction – a familiar theme within the post-punk genre. Earlier in 2021, Viagra Boys released Welfare Jazz with similar discussions about finding a way out of urban despair, often ironically resolving in merely replacing it with another kind of despair. But Joe Talbot’s lyricism is darker and less humorous than the Viagra Boys’. “I’m on my knees for porcelain ‘cause it felt like god to me // And yeah I’m a fucking crawler, crawling hurts but it works for me,” he sings as he desperately tries to cope with the pain. His singing is outstanding throughout the record, squeezing out “I’m alright!” repeatedly on the chorus in the (kind of) title track “Crawl!” Talbot’s decollating vocal style has always been one of IDLES’ greatest gifts, making even monotonous and perhaps not-so-interesting songs such as “King Snake” pleasurable due to the powerful singing.
But even if IDLES have approached a more experimental and emotional approach on CRAWLER, they haven’t lost their gift for writing memorable hooks. If Joy as an Act of Resistance had “Never Fight a Man with a Perm” and Ultra Mono had “Model Village” then CRAWLER has “The Beachland Ballroom.” The song is unlike anything IDLES have ever done before. While it is as tormented as the rest of the album, the slow, one-note piano and Talbot’s haunted appearance makes the song stand out as the record’s true peak and proves that IDLES continue to push their boundaries forward.
If Ultra Mono suffered negatively from the absence of live performances, as Talbot himself declared, CRAWLER proves that the band is capable of writing with more substance, vulnerability, and openness without losing any of the brutalism and violent approach to music in general. Because of its afflicted nature, deeply personal themes, and the almost sinister mood, this might not be the immediately arresting assault that Joy as an Act of Resistance was nor the chart-topping post-punk party of Ultra Mono, but with some perspective, CRAWLER will be seen as another important milestone in IDLES discography as they remain steadily seated on the post-punk throne.