I’ve made no secret of my love for IDLES on this website since we launched back in March. And the fact that this is the first album I’ve reviewed for Picky Bastards having already pre-ordered it on vinyl probably indicates that it was never going to receive a relentlessly negative reaction from me. That said, I do have some doubts about the necessity of live albums. Are they just a cash cow? Is it possible to capture the experience of a gig on record? And, particularly in the case of a band who are so captivating on stage, will the fact that you can’t see the band mean that the live songs simply come off as less perfect sounding versions of the songs you already own on the albums? I was keen to put this to test.
Anyone who’s been on the IDLES train for a while now will be familiar with the slowed down, brooding version of ‘Colossus’ with which they open their live shows and the raucous scream of ‘Never Fight a Man With a Perm’ that follows it. This opener has become a staple. And there’s something so special, so unique, about an IDLES live show that even hearing that one-two punch on A Beautiful Thing, their first live album, rather than in the actual live setting, is enough to raise the goosebumps on your arms. For me, putting the record on for the first time after it landed on my doorstep, I was taken back to those times I’ve been lucky enough to stand among my fellow AF Gang members and bounce up and down to the most uplifting music released in the last few years. Even on record, that community energy comes through.
It’s a good start. And honestly, as we make our way through the setlist from this December 2018 gig at Paris’s Le Bataclan, all of those lingering doubts are pushed aside. ‘Mother’ sounds as good as it always does; in fact, it is possibly even improved by Joe Talbot’s speech to the crowd beforehand, in which he dedicates the song to his father and declares himself a feminist. It’s another reminder of those nights in an IDLES crowd. ‘I’m Scum’ and ‘Danny Nedelko’ are their usual, powerful, empowering selves. And as someone who was a bigger fan of the second album than the first, it is a pleasure to get a reminder of how strong songs such as ‘1049 Gotho’ and ‘Divide and Conquer’ from Brutalism really are.
So with my concerns about the point of a live album firmly put to bed, I am left wondering why this works so well. The answer I land on is a simple one. IDLES aren’t, and never will be, the most musically refined band. They’re a group of like-minded lads who get by on their massive amounts of passion, their political sentiments, their energy, and their wit. Their studio albums sound close enough to live as it is. And having the ad-libs and the stage banter alongside the songs on A Beautiful Thing is a reminder that when we fell in love with IDLES, we fell in love with the people as much as the music. They speak to us and for us, and never as much as when they’re on stage.
So A Beautiful Thing is, for me, a success. It is capturing a band at their absolute best, at the height of their game and in their favourite setting. It’s a reminder of why we’re so lucky to have them.
Words by Fran Slater