Following the release of their acclaimed second LP Joy as an Act of Resistance in 2018, IDLES has gone on to win several awards including two 2019 AIM Awards and dropped a live LP, A Beautiful Thing: Live at Le Bataclan. Despite their ever-growing fan base, IDLES has been extremely disciplined in their humbleness putting their success down to hard work and being “given the breadth to make mistakes”.
Feeling confident as a unit in unison’ Ultra Mono is IDLES pilgrimage in finding “the economy of sound, and space and silence within songs”. Talbot goes even further suggesting: “This is the instruction manual to ‘Joy...’. It’s important to love yourself, but how do we do that? This is how we do that: by building something instead of just talking”. Whether or not Idles fans wish to read instructions or whether these instructions are well written; an evolution in their sound is inevitable.
Opener “War” explodes with an unnerving combative ambience of intense, pounding and urgent full-on guitars and charging drums sets. Ironically, the lyrics, whilst almost puerile with “Clack clack clack a clang clang! That’s the sound of the gun going bang bang. Tuka tuk tuk tuk tun tuka! That’s the sound of the drone button pusher. Shhh shh shhh shh shhh! That’s the sound of the children tooker” speak the same, if not more audible volumes than any scholarly poet can. “Grounds”, which follows “War” is in some respects lyrically a part 2 of “War” with “Fee fee fi fi fo fo fum. I smell the blood of a million sons. A million daughters from a hundred thousand guns. Not taught by our teachers on our curriculum” to a synchronised unnerving, controlled, disciplined, yet not riotous raw, rock soundtrack.
So far IDLES has demonstrated that they are as raw and politically charged as ever. We also begin to see a more melodic and rhythmic side to them with their lead single “Mr Motivator” with lyrical clichés including “Like Frida Kahlo painting arm the poor on your fuck-off wall” which the band request fans feedback on. The energy of the rhythm and melodies continue on “Anxiety” which has the opening lyrics “My girlfriend just dumped me for Friday night TV and a boy who’s 6 foot 3” whilst also offering answers for the rich-poor divide with “Cold leaders, cold class war. Keeping drugs you can’t afford. So the poor can’t buy the cure”.
The melodies reach infectious levels on “Model Village” with dance/punk perfection and sophisticated lyrical pondering “Just give them an anthem and they'll sing it. Still, they don’t know the meanings in it. Just saluting flags cause its British.” Likewise with a few more BPM and in just 2 and a half minutes “Ne Touche Pas Moi (Don’t Touch Me)” discuses personal space without mentioning any political candidate running for office. Songs “Carcinogenic” and “The Lover” equally impress with melodic backdrops set to IDLES punk and rock rawness.
Penultimate track “A Hymn” is probably the most vulnerable track they have done since “June” (which Talbot wrote just days after his daughter’s death). Discussing wanting to be loved whilst feeling shame and trying to move on; “A Hymn” uses distorted, yet beautifully complimenting melancholy sounds and noises which is both a ballad and an anthem. On the surface, some of the lyrics appear goofy such as “Hot Zumba classes at the new church” whilst others such as “I played happily til my teeth hurt” brings home the poignancy of “A Hymn”.
For the most part, Ultra Mono is a search for solutions and applying them. What we learn from IDLES is that this is an ongoing process that continues beyond this LP and any other subsequent IDLES releases. The raw, punk energy that has come to define the band along with social commentary is still present. Bringing in Kenny Beats to team up with Joy as an Act of Resistance producers Nick Launay and Adam Greenspan has introduced more melody and rhythm to IDLES songs.
IDLES has therefore learned more about the economy of sound, and space and silence within songs without impeding their hungry adrenaline-fuelled rawness. IDLES has also evolved lyrically by using an adroit Molotov cocktail of wit, sophistication and even childishness.