Idles are as idle as a bouncer named Tiny is tiny. Cue up a concert video on YouTube and you’ll see that the British post-punk outfit is anything but lazy or purposeless. Rather, they are in constant motion, a whirling dervish of sweaty head-banging, literal chest-beating, and half-naked Angus Young-style guitar theatrics. You’ll also understand how and why Idles have become one of the world’s most popular indie-rock bands. Few acts at the moment are as straight-forward about wanting to be perceived as great.
Therein also lies the problem. Idles aspire to the mix of political righteousness and musical bluntness that once caused people to call The Clash “the only band that matters.” And you can see surprising manifestations of that ambition when scores of backward hat-donning lads swarm in mosh pits and sing along with frontman Joe Talbot on lyrics like, “My blood brother is an immigrant / a beautiful immigrant.” No other successful rock band is doing that right now. But do good intentions — or simply good messaging — equal good rock ‘n’ roll? Four albums into their career, including the new Crawler out Friday, Idles haven’t yet made a persuasive case.
Comparing Idles to The Clash flatters them too much. By this point, The Clash were making Sandinista!, a flawed classic of uncommon imagination that a meat-and-potatoes guitar-and-bark band like Idles couldn’t even conceive of attempting. More and more, I find myself instead likening them to Mumford And Sons, with generic post-punk signifiers subbed in for the old-timey folk garb. But whereas Mumford offered listeners a reductive version of musical purity upon their rise in the late aughts and early 2010s, Idles deal in ideological purity during the fraught post-Trump/post-Brexit era of the late ’10s and early ’20s.
Otherwise their trajectories are pretty similar. Both bands came to prominence in large part due to their live performances, in which they utilize a highly energetic and infectious musical attack in the service of big, shout-y choruses and do-or-die emotionalism while wholly jettisoning nuance or the quieter end of the dynamic range. Mumford won an audience by delivering knockout performances on TV award shows, while Idles have wowed audiences with blistering appearances at music festivals. These relatively compact presentations suit them, concentrating all that energy in a tight time frame before it can become tiresome.
This kind of music is so heightened that is bound to elicit equally charged reactions. Some will hear it as rousing and even potentially life-changing music; others will find it strident to the point of irritation. I fall in the latter camp for both Mumford and Idles. For me they share the same essential weakness — they are musically one-dimensional, and they are relentless about hammering that solitary dimension with aggressive force. When every song is an anthem, it’s like eating a meal where each course is a piece of chocolate cake. Even a treat will eventually make you sick when consumed in large doses. Similarly, a single-minded focus on making EVERY. SINGLE. GESTURE. HUGE. will feel bludgeoning over the course of an album.
I wonder if Idles, on some level, agree with this. When they’ve been dragged by critics in the past, it’s been for their lyrics, which can read like Madlibs from the most zombified corners of lefty Twitter. (The line from “Grounds” where Talbot sings, “Saying my race and class ain’t suitable / So I raise my pink fist and say, ‘Black is beautiful’” might be their most notoriously wince-inducing.) But I would argue their music has been more of an issue. Crawler is the Idles album I’ve enjoyed more than the others precisely because it varies up their musical approach ever so slightly, which in the sonically monochromatic world of Idles albums registers as a seismic shift. Instead of starting each song at 11, they’re now experimenting with launching at an 8 or 9. It’s the first time I can remember having a moment to breathe while listening to this otherwise suffocating band.
Crawler immediately sets itself apart from the rest of Idles’ catalog on the album-opening track “MTT 420 RR,” in which Talbot for the first time on record actually … sings. You could even call it a croon, in the undead cool guy style of Mark Lanegan. The song also establishes the album’s thematic thread — Talbot describes a car accident (“The swell of heaven on my dashboard / I can see my spinal cord rip high”) that prompts fresh appreciation for being alive. This is bookended by concluding song “The End,” where Talbot quotes Trotsky’s famous pre-execution axiom (“In spite of everything, life is beautiful”) as an aspirational mantra in an uncertain and often ugly world.
Yes, this is a band that quotes Trotsky. But there are other parts of Crawler that I would tentatively classify as fun. “When The Lights Come On” is another example of Idles down-shifting from their usual bulged-neck hectoring, affecting a moody posture that approximates Interpol after a year’s worth of daily gym visits. “The Beachland Ballroom” is slow-building R&B torch song that extends the classic soul influence that first appeared with the cover of Solomon Burke’s “Cry To Me” on 2018’s Joy As An Act Of Resistance. Meanwhile “The New Sensation” is a genuine dance party song, with Talbot imploring us to “shake it to the snare and get down to the kick / shake your tiny tooshie like you don’t give a shit.”
Talbot has signaled his awareness of how some critics pilloried their previous album, Ultra Mono, for the trite sloganeering that dot their songs. He’s suggested Crawler is more of a “storyteller” album. But Idles have a way of embarrassing themselves even when they ditch the #resistance buzzwords. (Writing songs about “tiny tooshies,” at best, is a lateral move.)
What Crawler ultimately fails to rectify is their lack of depth. As a lyricist, Talbot deals in platitudes and non-sequiturs, and then he hollers those words like a psychotic gym teacher admonishing his students for not climbing the ropes fast enough. If he aspires to storytelling on Crawler, he rarely lands on a narrative that is insightful or even coherent. As he sings in “Car Crash” — have I mentioned the album’s common theme yet? — “I chewed up your story, some tush between my teeth / The fear’s gargantuan, don’t like what I can see / Racist prick on the right side, no one to trust on the left / So I put my foot on overdrive, close my eyes and press.” Whatever else can be said of Crawler, it is certainly the year’s most “tush”-heavy album.
Then again, I suspect that the album format is not Idles’ ideal or even primary vehicle. On stage, the antics of guitarist Mark Bowen and the flailing, hyperactive rhythm section offset Talbot’s heavy-handed admonishments. And in that arena they can be truly thrilling. At a music festival, you can also walk away once you get your fill. With Idles, that tends to not take very long at all.