Joe Talbot, frontman of IDLES, once said of the album Brutalism, "It was a last-ditch attempt for us. We didn't see it as the first of many albums." He was feeling confused and felt completely lost. He questioned what he was doing with his music. Thankfully, he found his way. This led to the release of Brutalism in March 2017.
The album has now been re-released with an additional live recording of the album, recorded at the BBC Introducing Stage at Glastonbury in 2022. The limited-edition album contains alternative cover artwork created by Joe Talbot and is pressed on cherry red vinyl.
The original cover featured a photograph of Talbot's mother, who died while the band worked on the album. This event played a significant part in shaping the record and the band's future. As Talbot told The Quietus in 2017, "When she died, there was a huge shift in my life. I realised these catastrophic events could ultimately give you greater clarity. You're suddenly able to see all the bullshit you've been dragging along; you start being able to get rid of the people who were dragging you back with their negativity and selfishness. At some point, after my mum died, we (the band) all met and asked ourselves what the f**k we were doing. We had to start again."
Brutalism laid down a significant marker. This was going to be their music, their voices, their way. The original album was also self-released. It became a platform for IDLES to build upon, leading to a UK Number 1 album in 2020, Ultra Mono. But how does this album fare five years on?
I believe Brutalism is a perfect title for this album. It is a highly expressive recording and kicks and punches you repeatedly, refusing to let you get up to escape the pain. It all starts with "Heel/Heal", a song about striving to conform to a lifestyle set by others. Only by having a mortgage and many shiny things in your home can you be considered successful and happy. Be a good consumer. Strive to reach goals you didn't set for yourself. Talbot's vocal gets progressively angrier and more frustrated as he repeats the same verse throughout the track. In the end, those vocals become more like screams. Here is a man breaking down.
The theme of achievement flows into "Well Done". Talbot sings, "Why don't you get a degree?/Even Tarquin has a degree/Mary Berry's got a degree/So why don't you get a degree?" This idea that you must follow a specific path as it will make you happy and solve your problems is an idea consistently perpetrated from the cradle to the grave. People are dispensing advice not asked for by people ill-equipped to give it. I genuinely feel Talbot's pain here! You can begin to sense this album isn't happy-go-lucky in its outlook.
Next is "Mother", now a popular staple in their live act. "The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich", chants Talbot, alluding to his political stance. However, he is just getting started as he moves on to toxic masculinity. "Sexual violence doesn't start and end with rape/It starts in our books and behind our school gates/Men are scared that women will laugh in their face/whereas women are scared it's their lives men will take." Only months after this album's release, the #MeToo movement gathered momentum after allegations of sexual assault were made towards Harvey Weinstein. It is a powerful, unflinching statement that must be discussed in a more comprehensive public forum. Bravo, Mr Talbot, for having the guts to call it out. An anthem for the ages and a bloody good song too.
"Date Night" allows Talbot to showcase his ability to show strong emotion in his voice. His vocals drip with disdain and distress. Keeping with Talbot's singing, "Faith in the City" sees his voice sounding reminiscent of John Lydon in his Public Image Ltd days. Comedian and actor George Carlin once said, "The God excuse - the last refuge of a man with no answers and no argument". This helps to encapsulate the meaning behind this song. When all else fails, all ideas are spent; when alcohol has not worked, there's always God to sort your life out. Get yourself to Alcoholics Anonymous and learn to see the light.
Another superb song is "1049 Gotho", exploring depression, despair and the lack of self-worth. Lee Kiernan and Mark Bowen work together to create a thick wall of sound with their fantastic guitar playing. Adam Devonshire (bass) and Jon Beavis (drums) punch holes through the wall with their beats, creating a manic rhythm. When you thought your eardrums were at capacity and unable to take in any more sound, Talbot lays his despondent vocals over the top. As the song progresses, his voice becomes more fractured and distressed, sounding like someone dragging their nails down a blackboard towards the final bars.
If pounding rhythms that gnaw at you like stomach cramps is more your thing, "Divide & Conquer" should satisfy you. "A loved one perished at the hands of the baron-hearted right" could well have been written after the pandemic but pre-dated it by a wide margin. However, the NHS has been kicked and battered over recent years, and this line certainly alludes to this. It is the only real lyric in the song. On the one hand, I admire the simplicity that strikes the heart of a huge problem.
On the other hand, I wished they had delved a little deeper and thrown stinging punches at those guilty of its destruction. The song ends with an increased tempo and feels like delving into mania. Sonically, it shrieks with disturbance and anger.
Anyone for another TV celebrity cook? How does "Rachel Khoo" sound? Well, in terms of the song, it is the weakest link on the album. "My old man's a dustman/He's a sculptor by his trade/He always wears the trousers/And he carves with a hardy spade", sings Talbot. His father produced the sculpture featured on the cover of the original release of Brutalism, alongside a picture of Talbot's mother.
Next up, we look at the issue of ignorance and its dangers when those with little or no knowledge are given a platform in "Stendhal Syndrome". The world has seen the problem of this massively amplified in recent years. Social media and spurious news outlets have taken over from the gobshite at the bar. Here, Talbot focuses his gaze on those who dismiss art. "Well, I'm not pleased/’cos you spread your opinion like a rectal disease". Ignorance is bliss? No. It's dangerous in the wrong hands. Often the hands are on a keyboard but not exclusively. In '82, Mensi (Thomas Mensforth) and the Angelic Upstarts sang, "Destroy what you don't understand". There are certainly some similarities to the songwriting of Mensforth and Talbot. I love this song, but the music is a little constricted. The production could have opened this up and improved the final cut.
Had enough angst yet? No? Well, how about "Exeter" to top up your levels? Listening to it is akin to being caught in a tornado – you become trapped. There's no exit, and you spin at pace. If you weren't giddy enough, "Benzocaine" fixes on using drugs to numb your pain. Moreso, it highlights that despite your best efforts, drugs only mask the pain. It is still there when you come back down. As the kids of Grange Hill said, "Just Say No".
"White Privilege" seems to poke at the slow disintegration of the middle classes and the aspiration to join them. "One miscarriage/Two abortions/One Degree/Seven Jobs/Sally danced her socks off as Jesus sobbed/Always poor/Never bored". The issues around class are touched upon several times throughout the album. It is good to know there are still some bands with something interesting to say.
The album finishes with a song about being a piece of shit, according to Talbot, on the live version included as part of this album. "Slow Savage" hits the marmite spot. Some listeners will be disappointed that the album finishes on a song at odds with the rest of the album. Me? It is a great song, a real punch to the guts—the drum pounds like a heartbeat throughout. A piano adds a few selective notes. Talbot's voice smacks of utter despair as he self-deprecates. He cries, "But it won't help me some, won't help me if we die/But it might help me some, might help me if you cry". The emotion oozes from your speakers. It feels like Talbot has draped himself upon you, expunging a blackness that swallows you.
It is indeed an odd choice for a closing track. It could be seen as an own goal, as it doesn't sound like anything else on the album. It is slow, stripped bare in its musicality. Or it can be viewed as very brave and leaves you marked with bruises that you will remember for days to come. I see it as the latter as I felt like I'd been beaten and left in a heap in a filthy back alley.
The live album that forms part of this release sees the album played whole, but with "White Privilege" and "Slow Savage" switched. After the description I gave above for "Slow Savage", you can understand why closing a live set at Glastonbury may not be suitable. Before Brutalism was released in 2017, the band commented on how they were not capturing the energy of their live shows in their studio recordings. They have certainly improved on that score. As with many live recordings, artists can never authentically capture the experience of being there. This is the case here, but it is still an excellent live album.
I would suggest listening to the live versions of "Stendhal Syndrome", "Benzocaine", and "Slow Savage" to get closest to the IDLES I saw live in Newcastle in February 2022. They are a band worth seeing live. There's energy flowing aplenty, the audience is fuelled by it, and the music sounds superb as it explodes from the stage.
IDLES have grown in popularity and musically since Brutalism was released. It was a gamble that paid off and has seen their popularity grow. As long as there is injustice in the world and social and political issues in abundance, Talbot will have plenty to get his songwriting teeth into. And those teeth bite. Savagely and hard. Beware of the angry Welshman.