IDLES have had something of a rebirth, and there’s an argument to suggest they might have needed one. While 2018’s landmark second release ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ triumphed with its barbed political wit and sepia-toned riffs, last year’s ‘Ultra Mono’ leaned excessively on shoutable slogans at the expense of substance and lacked the same musical variety as its predecessor. By contrast, ‘CRAWLER’ refuses to repeat that error. Frontman Joe Talbot may have called out his critics on ‘Ultra Mono’ standout track ‘The Lover’ – “You say you don’t like my cliches / My sloganeering and my catchphrase” – but for his band’s fourth outing, it seems as if, for the most part, he has taken their words on board. It’s not a bad decision at all.
What ‘CRAWLER’ appears to favour instead, aside from introspection, is atmosphere, and it brings fascinating yet brilliant results. Dissonant, sparse opener ‘MTT 420 RR’ feels like a genuine creative risk that could have dragged if handled badly, but it still manages to feel beautifully murky. The first half of the record brings success after success with this approach: ‘The Wheel’ marries the leanest, meanest, grittiest riffs of their career with devastatingly blunt lyrics (“I got on my knees and I begged my mother / With a bottle in one hand, ‘It’s one or the other’”), and ‘When The Lights Come On’, despite its relative simplicity, builds into a quietly elegant, fuzzy soundscape.
Things get truly exciting, however, when IDLES combine the atmospheric with the experimental. Six months ago, it might have been hard to imagine them making anything like the fifties-inspired rock ‘n’ roll waltz of ‘The Beachland Ballroom’, but its boldness is just one reason why it is such a standout.
There’s a disarming grace about it that shouldn’t work with the abrasive edge Joe Talbot’s howls bring, but it does, and it proves that this band are capable of far more. The same can be said for ‘Car Crash’, a sludgy hybrid of post-punk and grime delivered with unpretentious self-assurance which sees IDLES at their most intriguing and even cinematic.
If only this was kept up into the second half of ‘CRAWLER’. Despite the screech of saxophone in its midpoint, ‘Meds’ could be wedged into the tracklist of ‘Ultra Mono’ without disturbing its flow, which gives the impression of the band treading old ground. It’s not a disappointing track by any means, but this band have now raised the bar for themselves, and they don’t always clear it. Similarly, as fun as the light-footed bounce of ‘King Snake’ is, it comes off as a throwback to ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’, which begs the question: which way do they want to look, forwards or backwards?
Equally, at points, their ideas don’t quite sustain their own momentum - the thirty-second ‘Kelechi’ feels purposeless and the softly ambient ‘Progress’ chases its own tail, almost in a pale imitation of what ‘MTT 420 RR’ was trying to accomplish. It’s pulled together by closer ‘The End’, however, which satisfies simply by being lofty and life affirming, declaring “In spite of it all, life is beautiful,” in a manner that befits raising your arms to the sky and screaming for joy.
At its best, ‘CRAWLER’ is fresh, bold and inventive in a way we’ve never seen IDLES attempt to be before. What it needs, however, is a greater commitment to being consistently ambitious.
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