Idles burst out the gate in 2017 with Brutalism, the biggest punk debut of the year, and 2018 sees them following up their initial gut-punch with a more political, angry, and multi-facetted effort in Joy As An Act Of Resistance.
From opener Colossus, you know you’re in for a ride. The track lives up to its name and is truly gargantuan, as frontman Joseph Talbot rails against masculine expectations with a delivery that slinks and crawls before reaching a ragged crescendo. Talbot’s voice, running the gamut from quietly menacing to throat-shreddingly ferocious, is a highlight throughout this album. Talbot is also primary lyricist and songwriter. Previous effort Brutalism centred largely on the death of Talbot’s mother, who he had taken care of for a large part of his adult life. That album hinted at Talbot’s feminism with snatches of critique against the kind of brusque male English posturing that he would seem to embody, at least on first sight.
This time he drops the hints and slings punches instead – toxic masculinity and its harms is a recurring theme on the record. On the frenetic finale of Colossus, Talbot rattles off a list of stereotypical male heroes – wrestlers, stuntmen, gangsters – but follows each with a plot twist. The list ends with namechecking infamous British gangster Reggie Kray, but the punchline is cut short. We can only guess what it was, but it’s been long suspected that the stereotypically masculine gun-slinging Kray was a closet homosexual. Love Song takes a more ironic tack, poking fun at men’s socially-ingrained inability to emote (“I really love you/ Look at the card I bought/ it says I love you”).
We peak with Samaritans, where the crushing expectations and boor-headed attitude promoted to young men is laid bare as Talbot screams, “The mask of masculinity / is the mask that’s wearing me” – a rallying cry that rises to a fever pitch in the song’s bone-crushing resolution. It’s one of the most cathartic moments in music this year. In three tracks, the album has already earned its keep.
If Joy were merely socio-political it would feel heavy-handed, but thankfully Idles have a sense of humour throughout. Tracks such as Never Trust a Man With A Perm are downright hilarious. Witness lines like “You’re not a man you’re a gland/ You’re one big neck with sausage hands.” Talbot has surely mangled the inside of his mouth, given how toothy he gets while his tongue remains planted firmly in cheek.
Likewise, if Idles only dealt in blunt force and pessimism they would do little to distinguish this release from their previous record. Yet they’ve covered this base too, with several refreshing antidotes to the album’s heavier numbers. Danny Nedelko carries a strong anti-racism message, but musically it’s a pop punk number that will burrow itself into your brain. Its chorus, riding major chords, is uplifting. It’s a mood Idles hasn’t tackled up to this point, and they carry it off with aplomb. Television is a triumphant ode to self-love. Great rallies against Brexit, but behind the initial bite is a strain of optimism, again carried by a cracking singalong chorus.
Joy as an Act of Resistance falls just short of classic status. It’s not so much for the record’s lack of lyrical or conceptual heft; rather, it’s a shame Idles didn’t extend this ambition to their overall sound. While well-written, the songs tend to blur together with the same guitar tones, distorted basslines and chord progressions repeating one time too many. Yes we know it’s punk, but the punk and post punk field is stacked these days. Punk aces Iceage and Ought had very strong releases this year, and newcomers Shame have carved their own very powerful niche. Let’s also not forget Australia’s own Peep Tempel, one of the country’s best and most unsung bands. These groups carry their sound not only on ferocity, but sonic diversity. With competition that strong, Idles would be well-advised to throw a few more spanners in the works.
Nevertheless, Joy As An Act Of Resistance is an amazing sophomore release that pulls no punches and revels in some of the angriest hooks you’ll ever hear. It’s not the most musically interesting release of the year – but it’s be one of the most memorable, and most important.