By Gruff Kennedy, Postgraduate English
After 2018’s Joy as an Act of Resistance, some hailed IDLES as prophetic, era-defining greats. Though a fairly hyperbolic judgement, the album was suffused with an unmistakeable authenticity and passion, which overshadowed its sometimes flawed lyricism and on-the-nose politics. It had heart, and you couldn’t fault it for that. Unfortunately, Ultra Mono only highlights its own deficiencies in reminding the listener of the qualities of its predecessor.
The third track ‘Mr Motivator’ is emblematic of the album’s problems. The song seems at once a knowing parody of feel-good, ‘inspirational’ pop anthems and an entirely earnest semi-coherent political screed. The band’s tightly-wound instrumentals, characteristic of their earlier efforts, are replaced with an overwrought, overproduced intro, which meshes uneasily into the repetitive melody.
The lyrics redound with bizarre almost-cliches - ‘Conor McGregor with a samurai sword on roller skates’ - which, in tandem with the sardonic pre-chorus ‘How d’you like them cliches?’, appear to be a provocative retort to critics accusing the band of over-reliance on feel-good slogans - the very same feel-good slogans this song appears to be parodying.
To immediately follow this with a slogan as contrived and sincere as ‘Kathleen Hanna with bear claws grabbing Trump by the pussy’ rather undercuts any ironic impact that could have been made. There is a fundamental failure to communicate here, a message far too muddled to get through on any meaningful level.
IDLES have historically been at their best while operating in a mode of honest, focused irreverence. ‘Danny Nedelko’, the band’s signature song, captures this mix of wholehearted sloganeering - ‘My blood brother is an immigrant’ - and gentle absurdist humour to carry the message: ‘My blood brother’s Freddie Mercury / A Nigerian mother of three’. Ultra Mono, in stark contrast, appears swathed in alternating layers of irony and sincerity, and at no point is it clear exactly how seriously we’re meant to take it. Take the opening track, which begins with a series of pretty torturous onomatopoeias: ‘Wa-ching!... Clack-clack, clack-a-clang clang!’
If this is truly a band hellbent on making a profound and serious political statement, it's at best optimistic and quite naive. Less generously, it is self-indulgent nonsense
‘Torturous’ would also be the perfect word to describe, say, frontman Joe Talbot’s choice to rhyme ‘low prices’ and ‘true crisis’ in ‘Carcinogenic’, or the painfully awkward scansion of the third verse of ‘Kill Them With Kindness’: ‘I guess you cannot tell from my tone, I mean ba-ba-business and I ain’t on my own / I’m guessing it is hard for you to see, that-that-that-that empathy will cut down your throne’. Or what about ‘Sick sick, I feel kicks / But the kicks don’t kick so I act a prick / I’ve got anxietyyyyyyy’ from ‘Anxiety’? Is this truly the best work these supposed experts in social commentary can offer?
The answer appears to be yes, as little else on the album surpasses this low bar. Not much on the album rings true; the rest is so spectacularly meaningless that it calls the good intentions of the band into doubt. Surely these are not serious lyrics, and if they’re not, who exactly is the target?
To be clear: I don’t believe that IDLES have their collective heart in the wrong place. The only song on the album to come anywhere near to landing a coherent political point, ‘Model Village’, says all the right things about homophobes, the ‘not racist[s] but…’, the tabloid press and so on and so forth. While it still feels somewhat overly earnest and simplistic, it just about hits the mark.
Contrast this with, say, Ne Me Touche Pas, which begins with the utterly groan-worthy ‘This is a sawn-off / For the cat-callers / This is a pistol / For the wolf whistle’. Countering male aggression with further male aggression feels at best misguided, and at worst braggadociously ignorant - an approach done no favours by the inclusion of Savages’ Jehnny Beth as the track’s guest vocalist. Beth, of course, is a woman who confronts the very real and pernicious evil of sexism in a manner more articulate, fierce and thoughtful than anything Talbot has managed.
‘Grounds’ is even worse, exposing the singular failings of Ultra Mono best of all. It purports to be an ode to ‘strength in numbers’ while coming across more like a patronising harangue from the idea-vacuum treasurer of the local SWP chapter for the perceived failing of not being hardcore enough: ‘Not a single thing has ever been mended / By you standing there and saying you’re offended / Go ahead, tell them what I’ve intended / I’ll say what I mean, do what I love, and fucking send it’.
In the end, Ultra Mono says very little of any political, satirical or even humorous substance, and it barely even ‘send[s] it’ while doing so. To flagrantly misuse a cliche myself, the album is a ‘tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ except that IDLES seem to have run out of original ideas, actual commentary, and fellow feeling all at the same time.
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Featured: Partisan Records
Have you listened to Ultra Mono yet? If so, what did you make of it?