IDLES - Joy as an Act of Resistance
by Evan Phillips
‘Acts of Fear and Love’. The title of the latest record from Kent punk duo Slaves. Something about that album title has stuck with me ever since I first listened to the band’s third full length release, and I was recently delighted to find out there was more to the phrase than the anecdote frontman Isaac Holman tells during the closing track. Now, before you ask: yes, I am aware I’m meant to be talking about IDLES; I’ll get to them soon enough, although, if you want a bare-bones review of Joy as an Act of Resistance (from here on abbreviated to JaaAoR) then the tagline just above should suffice. ‘Acts of Fear and Love’ it turns out, relates almost perfectly to a theory proposed by scholar Stacy Clifford-Simplican that there are two kinds of political communities: ‘communities of strength’ and ‘communities of vulnerability’. The former values personal ability above all else (physical/mental prowess, speaking the same language, coming from the same social class/ethnic background) while the latter puts its emphasis on shared, human needs (justice, shelter, security, love). Thanks to Philosophy Tube for making me smarter, by the way.
What this boils down to is that, as human beings, we can view those different to us in two opposing ways. Either as separate and distant from ourselves and therefore wrong in some way, or as just that: different, but no less human and requiring love and recognition as we are. I hadn’t intended to frontload this review with philosophical chin-stroking, but I’d be lying if I said these weren’t the kind of issues that JaaAor raised for me upon listening; along with ‘what does it mean to be a man?’ And, ‘can we learn to love ourselves in the digital age?’ Blimey, not exactly off to a light start, are we? But then, neither is the album. Opening track Colossus builds from just the click of Jon Beavis’ sticks against a snare rim (perhaps the only time on the record the band’s powerhouse drummer is restrained in his playing), to a full-on punk thrash at the close; all the while building in intensity and menace with growling bass notes from Adam Devonshire and the cacophonous guitar work of Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan. It grips you like a vice and holds you there quite magnificently.
Like Brutalism however, IDLES tremendously exciting racket is the canvas on which frontman Joe Talbot bears his soul and, just like the debut, it’s his lyrics that provide some of the most memorable moments on the record. From his pained cries of ‘I am my Father’s son/his shadow weighs a ton’ on the opener, to the anthemic chant at the centre of single Danny Nedelko where he appears to paraphrase Yoda: ‘Fear leads to panic/panic leads to
pain/Pain leads to anger/anger leads to hate’. In fact, for fun, I’m going to put just a few of Joe’s lyrics here without context as a taster, and because they’re so brilliantly biting in their sardonic wit:
‘You are a Topshop tyrant/even your haircut’s violent/You look like you’re from Love Island’
‘I’ll sing at fascists till my head comes off/I am Dennis Skinner’s Molotov’
‘I fucking love you/I really love you/Look at the card I bought/it says I love you’
‘I’m sorry your Grandad’s dead/Aaaaaahhh, lovely spread’
Following Colossus is the brilliantly titled Never Fight A Man With A Perm which features a riff and a hook that feels like a moshing call to arms and yet also manages to be weirdly danceable, until the pummelling drums and guitars of the chorus come in, so heavy they seem to pull the track in on itself like a black hole, as Talbot bellows ‘concrete and leather!’ in a turn that reminded me distinctly of Iceage. Then there’s I’m Scum, a proud declaration of being working class and ‘just another cog’. Devonshire’s bass rattles and chugs underneath the piercing lead guitars in the verses; all of which end with the much-referenced line ‘this snowflake’s an avalanche’ which some have called cringey, but I will call genius. Danny Nedelko too sees Dev’s bass lines and Jon’s impeccable drumming as the glue holding the entire track together over the rousing proclamations of love and tolerance in the verses from Joe (with a cheeky Pavement reference to boot).
At the centre of the album, both chronologically and thematically, is June. A sombre march with pounding drums at its core, the song concerns the death of Joe’s baby daughter and is as stark and raw a portrait of grief you’ve likely heard since Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree or Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me. Joe’s vocal performance is ragged and the whole song builds to the utterly devastating refrain, ‘baby shoes for sale, never worn’. It feels voyeuristic to even be privy to such anguish. I don’t listen to it much. Joe described the track as being ‘for me’ and while the decision to include it here is bold indeed, I can understand what he means. Samaritans raises the mood slightly, Talbot taking aim at the culture of toxic masculinity, while Jon and Dev weave a bouncy, marching rhythm underneath it all, and the shout of ‘I kissed a boy and I liked it!’ before the pummelling guitar-led outro is just brilliant. Television and Great provide yet more second-half highlights, the former’s cathartic chorus and Joe’s repeated calls to ‘love yourself’ feel life affirming. Great meanwhile is a short, sharp stab at Brexit lunacy and ignorance, with Dev’s deceptively simple jackhammer bassline stealing the show.
The final one-two punch of the record starts with Cry to Me, a Solomon Burke cover that, without having been sped up, retains an emotional potency through the thunderous drums, angular guitar strumming and Joe’s impassioned vocals. Which brings us to Rottweiler, a song that’s been a mainstay of IDLES’ live sets for well over a year now. I was slightly concerned that listening to so many brutal live performances of the track might spoil the
recorded version but not so. It captures every drop of sweat and pent-up energy of an IDLES gig and bottles it up into a five-minute punk-rock barnstormer against the British tabloid press. The album ends, appropriately enough, with the band waging war on their own instruments while Joe screams ‘keep going! Burn the house down! Unity!’ and the track disappears in a haze of feedback.
There’s so much more I could mention, I do want to shout out the production courtesy of Space (who also worked on Brutalism), that removes some of the more lo-fi qualities of the debut without sacrificing the intensity, or the volume. But the reality is if I keep going we’ll be here all day, and I think mine and your time would be better spent listening to Joy. I can’t remember being as excited about a band and its fanbase as I am about IDLES and the wonderful AF Gang (the AF stands for Apple Farmer, obviously). Without question the best band to chronicle these uncertain times and show us that, even in our darkest days, all you need is love.