Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Favorite Track: "War" Least Favorite Track: "Anxiety"
On the 10th track of IDLES 3rd studio effort, ULTRA MONO, singer Joe Talbot aggressively yells a set of words that would have once sounded right at home in an IDLES track, “Sycophants does not a good band make…”. Instead, in the context of ULTRA MONO, this adage sounds absolutely blasphemous, seeing as this is IDLES most sellout work yet. Pandering to the newfound fans gained through the massive success of their socially conscious post-punk opus, Joy As An Act Of Resistance, ULTRA MONO effectively paints the band into a corner creatively. On JAAAOR, IDLES proved themselves to be politically influenced, discussing topics like modern love, toxic masculinity, unjust government systems, the list goes on. I personally thought this record was genius, as it compiled some of the most necessary messages for the time into a record that simultaneously felt like a relief and a punch in the jaw. This brand of double-sided punk not only gained IDLES a massive fanbase for a band of their genre, but also gained them high critical acclaim.
Fast forward to 2020 and unfortunately it seems that the band, once cutting edge and lyrically intriguing, has traded every ounce of grit they once had for a gentrified, borderline cringey lyrical style and instrumentals that leave much to be desired. The guitars, while heavy in tone, seem to have no bite to them, leaving me increasingly perplexed as to how a band that once wrote a track as heavy-hitting as “Never Fight A Man With A Perm” is capable of making a track like “Ne Touche Pas Moi”. Talbot’s lyricism is cringe-inducing at times, putting forth some of his worst writing yet. The lyricism on “The Lover” and “Anxiety” especially, is painful to get through. The rhythm section is really this record’s saving grace even though the performances here are not nearly as good as they were on the band’s previous releases. IDLES do manage to pull together some tasteful bass riffs and driving drums, adding some life to tracks that otherwise feel relatively soulless. In short, ULTRA MONO is a downgrade in every sense of the word.
While I obviously hold issues with nearly every aspect that the band presents on ULTRA MONO, what I am most disappointed with is Joe Talbot’s songwriting. Where we once got succinct, meaningful lyrics like “If someone talked to you/The way you do to you/I’d put their teeth through/Love yourself” now we instead get lyrics that seem to pander to an audience that IDLES thinks they have gathered. Moments like “Let’s all hold hands/Chase the pricks away” and “Your Hum-drum, sarky slow lines don’t bother me none/”Wa-wa-wa Woo-woo-woo, said the flower to the sun”, feel less like anything resemblant of IDLES previous motivational, but meaningful lyrics, and instead leaves me feeling like I just watched the most recent episode of Sesame Street.
The few redeeming factors on the album, though few and far between, add at least some value to an otherwise dreadful album experience. I went into this album completely blown away by the first track, “War”, where Talbot lets out blasts of aggressive gun sounds, almost reminiscent of the snare drum line from “Feel The Love” by KIDS SEE GHOSTS. The lyrics on this track are sad, but act as a reality check for the life of war and violence many people lead. The track “Model Village” is a wonderful critique of people of extreme wealth, and the sad reality that they can live in gated communities and not worry about the outside world. Finally, “Carcinogenic” might be my favorite song lyrically on the record, likening social ills to carcinogens. Lines like “Working people down to the bone on their knees/9 to 5 every day of the week is/Carcinogenic” are spread throughout the song, painting a viciously clear image of the injustice of our society’s most basic functions.
Mostly, ULTRA MONO just leaves me confused, disappointed, and a little sad. Nearly every aspect of what I found originally interesting about IDLES seems to have been traded in for an attempt at pandering to a more politically charged audience. Poor execution leaves me feeling like I haven’t heard anything of much more substance than a nursery rhyme. Fortunately, the redeeming tracks I mentioned before keep me hopeful for a return to form for IDLES with their next release. Until then, though, I will continue jamming JAAOR and Brutalism, and hope for a day where we can see ULTRA MONO for what it is: a true misfire.