Album Review: IDLES - Joy As An Act Of Resistance
On last year’s debut album Brutalism, Bristol punks IDLES had a song called ‘Mother’, dedicated to singer Joe Talbot’s recently-deceased parent and all the daily efforts and extended shifts she had to pull as a nurse in the NHS. It was pretty much an encapsulation of all that IDLES stand for: public services, community, heroism in the everyday, agitating Conservatives – and it may well end up becoming their ‘Creep’, as it is probably their most instantly recognisable and catchy song, but seems so on-the-nose for them. Those ideas, and many more contemporary issues, are what fuels IDLES’ landmark second album Joy As An Act Of Resistance, which wrestles with them in vaguely more in-depth ways, but gets the messages across with much more emphasis and enthusiasm than before.
IDLES are undoubtedly and proudly a working class band, as songs like ‘Mother’ and Talbot’s regular on-stage soliloquys prove, and Joy As An Act Of Resistance revels in this fact – and confounds it too, by disproving what many have been led to believe about the lower-income population. In the year and a half since Brutalism, Britain has only descended further and further into squabbling over Brexit, with unseemly accusations being thrown about unjustifiably, often landing on the under-represented working class. The accusation is often that these are the people who voted for Brexit, who are the ones shouting for removal of immigrants, or who are feeding off government schemes and have no work ethic – IDLES are attempting to set that straight here.
Joe Talbot does this by both speaking earnestly about his own experiences on some songs, or caricaturing the anti-immigration bores that supposedly infest the country on others. In some tracks he takes on characters to show that the real conflict is between classes, not within them or with immigrants. Early double header ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’ and ‘I’m Scum’ find him taking on this low-life attitude with glee, backed up by the guitar guile of his bandmates. On ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’, Talbot picks up on a thread seemingly ripped from this summer’s headlines about middle-class drug use, as he disparagingly describes “a heathen from Eton/ on a bag of Michael Keaton.” Talbot’s demoniac thug and this “plastic Sinatra” come head to head in an alleyway brawl, described simply by Talbot repeating “concrete and leather,” while the band’s whirlpooling rock savagery fills in the physical image. Next track ‘I’m Scum’ is a genuine anthem that encourages everyone to sing the title in abandoned wretchedness, and urges listeners to accept their inner scumminess – after all the track’s protagonist might be the kind of person who “spits in your percolator,” but he’ll also “over-tip the waiter.” Talbot again asks us to consider who’s really “scum,” and what it actually means – our gut instinct is to think of “scum” as brainless, but Talbot throws in the unexpected thought “I don’t care about the next James Bond… I’m just wondering where the high street’s gone” – again forcing us to re-appraise the thoughts of people we might consider “less than.”
Immigration is an unavoidable topic on an album this pointed and prescient – and IDLES grasp at the opportunity to express their admiration for their foreign friends on the incendiary ‘Danny Nedelko’, titled after their Estonian pal. The brilliance of ‘Danny Nedelko’ is that it is essentially a punk rock football chant, its chorus of “yada yada yada/ eh eh eh eh/ Danny Nedelkoooooo” ringing out like a heroic gang vocal from the terraces – which takes an even more brilliant shine when you consider that football is one of the areas where foreign imports first gained widespread acceptance. They use a similar tack on later track ‘Great’, this time making fun of those who consider themselves Great British patriots, ripping apart someone who “wants his country back” while sitting comfortably with his “fifty inch screen in his cul-de-sac,” casually blaming Islam for his troubles. When it comes to singing out the choral “G – R – E – A – T” it comes glossed in the blissful ignorance of someone who truly has no clue what makes Britain great.
It’s not all tongue-in-cheek on Joy As An Act Of Resistance though, as IDLES have long been proponents of speaking out about mental health, and have created a handful of genuinely affecting moments on here too. At the centre there’s the towering ‘June’, a slow burning pyre of self-reflection and healing, written in the wake of the devastation suffered by Talbot and his wife having a stillborn child. A brutal drumbeat thunders through the track, with IDLES’ grey guitars blearing the canvas, as Talbot looks to the heavens and vows repeatedly and piously “Pretend/ I’ll mend/ Amen.”
While IDLES display utter vulnerability on 'June', they show the other side of the same coin in 'Samaritans', where they take aim at the toxic masculinity that is rife in today's societal expectations - another issue that has come to the fore recently with the widely-publicised and unacceptably high rates of male suicide in the UK. In 'Samaritans', Talbot declares that "the mask of masculinity/ is a mask that's wearing me," before making us re-examine the casually-used phrase “grow some balls,” revealing it to be genuinely questionable and quite possibly harmful. When it comes to the barn-burning central line “this is why you never see your father cry” it’s a stark and brave declaration, held up by IDLES scything and escalating sonic vortex, which all comes crashing down again in the song’s inflammatory final segment, set off by Talbot’s declaration “I kissed a boy and I liked it!” Sometimes IDLES take joy in their mental state, riding the endorphin high that comes from being open to life, whether it's repurposing Bloc Party’s idea of “this modern love” for something a little more insalubrious in ‘Love Song’, or the simple-but-heartfelt declaration “If someone talked to you the way you do to you/ I’d put their teeth through/ Love yourself!” in ‘Television’. Throughout the album IDLES prove that there’s more than meets the eye in each and every thunderous arrangement or slightly depraved lyric.
Which brings us back to the title of the album: Joy As An Act Of Resistance. On the surface it might seem like a title from Anarchy 101, but there's a genuine belief behind it. in the last couple of years, we’ve been led to believe by the media that everything is getting worse, that we’re all headed towards our doom and that the answer is to blame rather than take action. It can sometimes feel hard to get enthused about the day, let alone life, but IDLES have presented a document that flies in the face of all that. They’re here to prove that, more than anything, it is finding value in the quotidian and being open to new experiences that is the ultimate weapon against the ubiquitous gloom. IDLES believe that community spirit and togetherness will be what ultimately guides us closer to happiness as a whole, and in Joy As An Act Of Resistance they’ve created a monumental banner for the movement.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 31st August 2018.