While it would be false to say that IDLES last album Ultra Mono was roundly panned upon release, it would be fair to acknowledge that it received their most mixed reviews so far. For some, it was a sign that the wheels were falling off. I was one of them. IDLES had become, before that album, the act that most excited me. Brutalism felt raw and aggressively honest, Joy As An Act Of Resistance a cathartic release of adrenaline, a call for acceptance and community that hit home with the majority of its notes. Ultra Mono felt like being hit on the head with a shitty sledgehammer. It had the band’s first major political misstep with ‘Model Village’. And while this band had always been very on the nose, Ultra Mono felt like a band picking phrases from the ‘liberalism by numbers’ dictionary mixed with a selection of nonsensical odes about Joe Calzaghe and other uninteresting celebrities. It was so full of nonsense that the attempts to make any sort of point fell short. Other than three songs, it was a band trapped by the identity they’d forged for themselves and unable to escape. I doubted they’d ever recover.
Crawler doesn’t entirely avoid these issues. ‘New Sensation’ stands out as the song that has clung on to the nonsense rhyming and pointless words – it feels like a punk ‘Macarena’. ‘Meds’ has the same problem as ‘Anxiety’ did on Ultra Mono as shouting the words ‘medicate/meditate/medicate’ does not make for an effective or interesting chorus. And while ‘Crawl!’ actually sounds pretty fucking good in the verses and the bridge, it borrows some awfulness from ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’ with its repeated mantra of ‘I’m feeling magni-fucking-fique.’
Put those three songs aside, though, and IDLES may have actually done all of the things I was calling out for them to do after last year’s release. On a song like ‘Progress’, they have shown that the promise of a different tack on ‘Grounds’ and ‘A Hymn’ was not a false one. They do have another gear. ‘Progress’ has an almost ambient feel in the first half, before bursting into something close to drone towards the end with a crunchy and aggressive guitar line and some trippy effects sprinkled on top. It features the calmest and most considered vocal performance of Joe Talbot’s life. I can even imagine non-IDLES fans enjoying this one, and there has never been an IDLES song I could say that about before. Many of those people would probably argue that the best thing about this one is that it doesn’t sound like an IDLES song at all, and maybe I’d struggle to argue.
But ‘Progress’ is far from being the only highlight here. Crawler actually starts superbly, with the brooding ‘MTT 420 RR’ melding into the furious ‘The Wheel’, before turning the post punk feels up to maximum on ‘When The Lights Come On’, and then giving us a taste of a band trying new things and actually making them work on the crisp ‘Car Crash.’ This might be the most consistently good run of four songs on any IDLES album. The fact that these songs all seem to be linked to a theme may play a role in their success, with Joe deciding to write about an experience of his own personal trauma instead of banging on about Delia Smith making him a nice cookie.
And that last point kind of feeds into what is actually the most impressive sign from Crawler. I thought this band was done after Ultra Mono because I doubted their ability to learn from their mistakes and make changes. I feared they had become so full of their own hype that they would ignore any criticism and keeping banging out the same old bollocks until even the most committed fan stopped buying their many different t-shirts. But they haven’t done that. The biggest criticism was that, after so successfully putting together a protest record with Joy, they now felt that if they weren’t preaching then they weren’t doing their job. Their words become less convincing because they didn’t feel real. Crawler is their least political album to date, and it benefits from that fact. They aren’t repeating the same old mantras in slightly different ways. They have leant into their storytelling again, and in the majority of cases this is working for them. And while Ultra Mono was a sloganeering nightmare, Crawler keeps the slogans to a minimum. They’re still there, but rarely. And when used they are effective. Final song ‘The End’ has a chorus of ‘despite of it all/life is beautiful’ that feels almost as powerful and chest-thumping as ‘my blood brother is an immigrant/a beautiful immigrant.’
In short then, IDLES have dug themselves out of a hole here. Crawler is far from a perfect album, but it is a huge step back into line and there is something extra refreshing about seeing them look inwards and come back with a more unique and exciting product than before. There was a danger IDLES could become the archetypal old man band howling at the moon, but this album shows that they are able to change and mature, to push new boundaries but still be all the things their fans have fallen in love with. Come back Joe Talbot, (almost) all is forgiven.
Words by Fran Slater