On Joy as an Act of Resistance, their second full-length release, Bristol’s IDLES are a group ferociously focused on the moment.
Frontman Joe Talbot, guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, bassist Adam Devonshire and drummer Jon Beavis chipped away together at their methods and message for some time before fully drawing up the blueprint for Brutalism, their 2017 debut. Joy… delivers on the momentum that they have been building, and seizes a piece of the zeitgeist in the process.
Abrasive, blistering guitars, a hammering rhythm section, and a vocalist with a voice that is rough around every edge. The pieces that IDLES are made of are the traditional building blocks of righteously angry rock music, and forty-odd years of punk, hardcore and post-hardcore history would support that notion. IDLES are quick to point out, though, in “Danny Nedelko,” that “Fear leads to panic / Panic leads to pain / Pain leads to anger / Anger leads to hate.” This world has no shortage of anger at the moment, but for Talbot and crew, anger is something to be transmuted, not dwelled or reveled in.
Talbot had previously hinted here and there earlier this year that Joy as an Act of Resistance would be about vulnerability. Despite its name, Brutalism was deceptively forthright and open-hearted, and Joy... amplifies that quality, as it does pretty much all of Brutalism’s other qualities. Joy...’s sights, however, are not set inward, even as IDLES make sure to provide droll self-critiquing disclaimers up front with “Never Fight a Man with a Perm” and “I’m Scum,” two moments on the new album most reminiscent in tone and temper of their first.
Brutalism had a hit list of peculiar characters and personal targets that it picked off one by one. On Joy..., IDLES assign themselves the almost Herculean task of addressing an itemized list of 21st century social ills: xenophobia, economic disparity, racism, nationalism, poor self-image and more. Appropriately then, the album begins with the band taking on “Colossus.” Their most notable exercise in tension to date, it is three-and-a-half minutes of nervous energy and caustic instrumentation, gradually and impeccably amassing until the song collapses under its own weight (it doesn’t just pause for breath, it comes to a full stop) and restarts as a belligerent punk singalong. You know this already, because Joy...’s most difficult song was also its first single.
“I am my father’s son / His shadow weighs a ton,” Talbot admits in the midst of the encroaching maelstrom of that opening track. His subsequent use of “Forgive me father / I have sinned” pins down a catch in the generational cycle; that those who pass along their sins to us are also those that we’re supposed to seek forgiveness from. Talbot has spoken in interviews of having a good relationship with his own father, but even boys with great dads feel at times that on some level they have get out from under those shadows to become men themselves. Those are the kinds of conventional, learned perspectives on masculinity that Joy... saves some of its harshest criticism for. The song’s second act highlights an absurdity of hegemonic man’s-man thinking by running through some highly questionable male icons: professional wrestlers, Evel Knievel and Reggie Kray (though how Fred Astaire got dragged into this is anyone’s guess).
The marching “Samaritans” goes for the throat of similar cliches: “Chin up / Pipe down,” don’t cry because you’d never catch your dad doing so. Talbot, in a brief breakdown after repeatedly decrying “the mask of masculinity,” proclaims “I kissed a boy and I liked it!”. At first it slips by as a funny nod to an old Katy Perry hit (Joy... includes other off-the-cuff lyrical references to Nirvana and Pavement songs), but then “Television” immediately follows and a deeper, unlikely connection seems to come together. “I wrote this for my daughter” writes Talbot of “Television” in his notes on each album track, and he begins the song with frank earnestness: “If someone talked to you / The way you do to you / I’d put their teeth through / Love yourself.” In terms of the message, it is in its own way an unpolished counterpart to “Roar,” delivered with an actual roar.
Perry admirers or not (and good on them if they are), the IDLES of Joy as an Act of Resistance are claiming their own kind of unconditional positivity apart from the big pop manufacturers. The album’s message is largely, defiantly upbeat and there are few if any truly controversial opinions to be found on it, unless you think people being good to one another is controversial. Still, Joy... doesn’t eagerly court mass appeal. There are new tricks like “Colossus” and new rhythms like “Samaritans,” but their catchy refrains are still barbed and their patience is still limited.
It is also still sometimes difficult to tell when Talbot is being dry and when he’s being sincere, and if there’s even much of a difference between the two for him. “I really love you / Look at the card I bough t /It says ‘I love you’,” he says flatly on “Love Song.” Coming from almost any other band that sounds like IDLES, you could safely presume sarcasm, but that’s not so much the case here. IDLES are the rare creative unit who can strip the irony out of any statement, or, in one specific instance, repurpose an apocryphal bit of literary trivia and make it truly hurt.
That song, “June”, written in the wake of a personal tragedy, is so raw that it can be almost difficult to stomach, but its inclusion on the album speaks to IDLES’ determination to walk it like they talk it. If we’re gonna do vulnerable, let’s really do it. To that end, the searing but sincere cover of Solomon Burke’s R&B classic “Cry to Me” that is Joy...’s penultimate track makes one small but significant swap: “Well here I am, boy / Cry to me.” To some, an image of tough guys shedding tears together might still be the stuff of comedy, but we might have a kinder world if it wasn’t.
Bringing Joy...’s light/heavy trip to a conclusion, “Rottweiler” snarls and spins ever more out of control, gnashing at the snakes, rats, sharks and vultures that are all coming for it. “Smash it! Burn it! Destroy the world! Burn your house down!” Talbot screams as his bandmates collapse around him, before delivering the album’s final decipherable declaration, “Unity!”, a condition already demanded in “Danny Nedelko” and the name of their tour earlier this year. One might see a contradiction in these parting words, but IDLES aren’t being macho or destructive in suggesting that we might have to tear it all down and start again if we’re going to truly come together. This is the jarring sound of sensitivity in a new age of chaos.