Joe Talbot did not appear on stage with Garbage at Shaky Knees, but he felt like a featured guest. Throughout the veteran alt-rock band’s set at the Atlanta music festival two weekends ago, singer Shirley Manson continually sang the praises of the IDLES frontman, her fellow Shaky Knees performer and recent podcast guest. She commended him as a good man who treats women with respect, a rare beacon of decency within the music industry. She also openly thirsted for him, explaining that it’s OK for adults to have crushes on popular musicians and hers is Joe Talbot. Her enthusiasm could not be contained.
Manson was far from the only person at Shaky Knees who was excited about IDLES. The Bristol quintet’s T-shirts were all over Central Park that weekend, particularly on Saturday, when they were set to perform a few hours after Garbage. IDLES were playing after dark on one of the smaller stages at the fest, but collective interest in the band suggested they could have easily held down a main-stage slot. Since releasing their debut album Brutalism in 2017, they’ve become one of the most fiercely beloved new rock bands in the world — and one of the most polarizing. What is it they say? Garbage’s treasure is another person’s trash?
I’ve long found myself caught between the IDLES fanatics and the haters. This group’s gruff, explosive spin on post-punk is undeniably rousing. Talbot is a commanding presence, too, a ferocious carnival barker capable of whipping his audience into a frenzy. He is clearly a thoughtful, charismatic guy, a knot of muscles and nervous energy at the center of his band’s bombast. But Talbot’s attempts at progressive political messaging have often made me roll my eyes the same way I do when the Democratic Party establishment tries to be woke. It’s not that I doubted or disagreed with his convictions, it’s just that the way he expressed them sometimes made me cringe.
Viewed through one lens, Talbot is Roy Kent from Ted Lasso, a hyper-masculine British ruffian with a warm, gooey heart. Viewed through another he is John Oliver, vainly attempting to rattle Donald Trump by calling him “Drumpf.” IDLES pretty clearly aligned themselves with the #resist crowd by naming their second album Joy As An Act Of Resistance in 2018, but they took it several steps farther on last year’s Ultra Mono, an album guitarist Mark Bowen has since described as “kind of like a caricature of our identity that helped us see it for all its flaws.” Despite songwriting input from esteemed influences like David Yow of the Jesus Lizard, Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds, and Jehnny Beth of Savages, the album’s virtues were overshadowed by lyrics that found Talbot trying way too hard, whether talking about grabbing Trump by the pussy on “Mr. Motivator” or solemnly declaring on “Grounds” that “I raise my pink fist and say Black is beautiful.” Maybe it was well-meaning, but it played like self-parody, like the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of a “Notorious RBG” T-shirt.
When Ultra Mono dropped, I was ready to give up on IDLES. A year later they’ve made a fan out of me. Finally seeing them in concert at Shaky Knees helped a lot; their noise-rock bar-fight approach feels exponentially more potent in the live setting, a reminder that this band is about whipping up gnarly waves of mutilation at least as much as fiercely growled slogans. Beyond that, with their new album, they’ve pushed and refracted their sound in fascinating ways while reining in some of their more egregious lyrical impulses. At its peaks, CRAWLER, out Friday, is as visceral as any IDLES album, but it finds them wielding their formidable power in ever more interesting ways.
Bowen co-produced CRAWLER with Kenny Beats, the former EDM DJ who made a name for himself a few years back with colorfully loud production for rappers like Rico Nasty, Vince Staples, and Denzel Curry. On his YouTube series The Cave, Beats has proven just how adaptable he can be depending on an artist’s needs, and with CRAWLER, he has helped IDLES morph beyond their signature sound. They’re still recognizable as the enlightened brutes we’ve come to know: a healthy dose of pub-hooligan punk like Chubby And The Gang or the Chisel; some of the brooding, howling post-punk spirit of Joy Division and Nick Cave; an abrasive edge akin to Pixies or Mclusky; a mix of hearty earnestness and harsh sonic violence that reminds me of Constantines. But they’re also messing around with slow-burn intensity (“MT 420 RR”), agitated shapelessness (“Progress”), blistering hardcore (“Wizz”), and refined-caveman soul music (“The Beachland Ballroom,” named for the Cleveland concert venue where I’ve seen some amazing shows over the years).
The experiments are inspired but not radical. They all feel like natural expansions of what IDLES have been building, proof that they are a more multifaceted band than they’re sometimes given credit for. Meanwhile Talbot, writing empathetically about addiction and trauma from his own experience, is the best version of himself, painting vivid scenes with his drill-sergeant grunts and roars, trading out blunt proclamations for artful turns of phrase. He is still writing a lot of message songs, but when they resolve into simple refrains — “Can I get a hallelujah!” on the gravel-encrusted stomper “The Wheel” or “Medicate! Meditate! Medicate!” on the nervy, propulsive “Meds” or the Trotsky quote “Despite it all, life is beautiful!” on finale “The End” — they feel more like hooks from rock songs than excerpts from the MSNBC teleprompter. He has gotten out of his own way, and it’s beautiful to behold.
Throughout CRAWLER, Talbot’s poetic narratives and his bandmates’ ambitious barrage combine into some of the most compelling rock songs I’ve heard this year. On the infectious “When The Lights Come On,” the drive to keep the party going one night in Spain leads to trouble: “It’s 3AM I wanna dance til the sun comes/ I wanna fight your cousin.” On the flickering “Progress,” the struggle with addiction plays out in two mantras at odds with each other: “As heavy as my bones were, I don’t wanna feel myself get high/ As good as your grace was, I don’t wanna feel myself come down.” My favorite is “Car Crash,” one of the nastiest, heaviest, most volatile IDLES tracks to date. As Talbot spins startling memories from a drug-induced auto accident he suffered, his bandmates build with nuance and texture toward a thrilling series of detonations. There is nothing cute there to take you out of the moment — just the kind of pummeling, immolating, exhilarating sonic violence that might make a skeptic into a convert. I get it now, Shirley Manson, and I’m starting to think IDLES get it too.
CRAWLER is out 11/12 on Partisan.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The first chapter of Beach House’s Once Twice Melody
• Courtney Barnett’s Things Take Time, Take Time
• Silk Sonic’s An Evening With Silk Sonic
• Damon Albarn’s The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows
• Irreversible Entanglements’ Open The Gates
• Lee Ranaldo’s In Virus Times
• Makthaverskan’s För Allting
• Jon Hopkins’ Music For Psychedelic Therapy
• Claire Cronin’s Bloodless
• Rod Stewart’s The Tears Of Hercules
• Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s Keyboard Fantasies Reimagined
• Susanna Hoffs’ Bright Lights
• Aesop Rock & Blockhead’s Garbology
• Amanda Shires’ For Christmas
• Lionlimb’s Spiral Groove
• French Montana’s They Got Amnesia
• Little Mix’s Between Us
• The Dodos’ Grizzly Peak
• Endless Boogie’s Admonitions
• Pip Blom’s Welcome Break
• Dave Gahan & Soulsavers’ Imposter
• TWICE’s Formula Of Love: O+T=<3
• Constant Smiles’ Paragons
• Flight Facilities’ Forever
• Gracie Abrams’ This Is What It Feels Like
• Gov’t Mule’s Heavy Load Blues
• Cedric Noel’s Hang Time
• Robin Guthrie’s Pearldiving
• Poppy Ackroyd’s Pause
• Kylie Minogue’s DISCO: Guest List Edition
• They Might Be Giants – BOOK
• Snarls’ What About Flowers? EP
• Abby Sage’s Fears Of Yours & Mine EP
• The Underground Youth & Laura Carbone’s In Dreams EP
• Rise Against’s Nowhere Sessions EP
• Taylor Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version)