I want to get this straight from the start: I love IDLES. Over the last few years, their music has been a beaming light in shit times and some of my favourite recent memories come from standing in a crowd and listening to their message of positivity being screamed from the stage. Brutalism and Joy As An Act of Resistance are both up there with my favourite albums of the last five years. That said, I must admit that the excitement I felt when Ultra Mono was announced had been somewhat dulled by a set of singles that, on the whole, seemed to be less special than so much of what came before.
I absolutely adore ‘Grounds’ and think it is one of their best songs so far. ‘A Hymn’ felt a little underwhelming as a single but I had some confidence that I would like it more once I heard it in its place on the album. Personally, though, I felt that ‘Mr Motivator’ had a stonking chorus but was packed with verses that were the most throwaway and uninteresting of the band’s career. Joe has always been keen on referencing pop culture in his songs, but while fantastic lines like ‘I sing at fascists ‘til my head comes off/I am Dennis Skinner’s molotov’ took songs like ‘I’m Scum’ to another level, here we have ‘Like Conor McGregor with a samurai sword/On roller blades’ and ‘Like Delia Smith after ten chardonnays/Making me a nice cookie.’ I just don’t get it. And with ‘Model Village’, IDLES released the first song of their career that I think misses the mark politically. I admire their regular calls for unity; this song screams division.
Unfortunately, after a few days with Ultra Mono I do feel that similar missteps pop up all too often. There is a bit of a backlash forming against the boys at the minute and I want to make it clear at this point that I don’t want to contribute to that. I think that, while mistakes may have been made and lessons can be learned, their message is genuine. They care. They wear their emotions on their sleeves and I believe that their positivity comes from a place of honesty and hope. But while they have always been on the nose about their messages, it has never felt forced to me before. When Joe sings ‘My best friend is an immigrant/a beautiful immigrant’ on ‘Danny Nedelko’ it is definitely not subtle, but it is effective and original and brave. It works. When he screams ‘This means war/anti-war’ on ‘War’ or repeats the word ‘consent’ over and over on ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’ I have no doubt that he means and believes what he’s saying; but the lack of nuance makes it feel a little bit like liberalism-by-numbers. Similarly, if you compare the ‘I have got anxiety/It has got the best of me’ of ‘Anxiety’ to the amazing lyrics across the whole of ‘1049 Gotho’, it again feels like there is something important they want to say but they just aren’t finding the same interesting ways to say it. None of these songs are bad, but they don’t match up to the amazing ones that preceded them.
But let me return to my love for ‘Grounds.’ This song grabbed me immediately; it continues their regular call for unity, it’s politically astute, but also, most importantly, it indicated that we might be about to experience a new sound from IDLES. That excited me. I mentioned earlier that I expected ‘A Hymn’ might grow on me and I was totally right – it’s a dark and brooding side of IDLES that I wish was much more apparent on Ultra Mono. It has some of Joe’s best storytelling on the album and doesn’t suffer from any of the less impactful lyrics I have quoted above. ‘Reigns’ is similarly superb. It is less brooding – more of a battering ram. But like ‘Grounds’ and ‘A Hymn’ it sets out a slightly different tone and sound to anything the Bristol boys have released before. These three songs show that IDLES can change things up, but sadly there are too many times on the album when we get a song that sounds like a lesser version of what has been lighting up our minds for the last few years.
I took on this review fully expecting my concerns about the singles to be put to bed. I expected to be gushing. The fact that I am not is as disappointing to me as it might be to some of you who are reading this, but I want to end by saying that Ultra Mono is by no means a bad album. There is only one song I don’t like at all. But after Brutalism and Joy As An Act Of Resistance, this doesn’t feel like it’s in the same league. IDLES were always going to have to think about how they evolve their sound and stay fresh, and they did that on ‘Grounds’, ‘A Hymn’, ‘Reigns’, and a couple more. I just hope they do it consistently across LP 4.
Words by Fran Slater