IDLES – Crawler

IDLES have brought the salacious, socialist snarl once again – and this time drawing on something even more primal and uncanny, presenting a set of sounds adjacent in meaning...
IDLES : Crawler
9.8 Partisan
IDLES : Crawler

Where there is no elegant insubordination and perceptive prankery, there is no soul. This is a certainty as inescapable as mice in the wall, and perhaps every bit as noisy at night. In 2009, as if in ribald answer to this punk-rock home truth, out of Bristol came something unsated and street-slinking – a pack of animal deities gurning at the espaliered ennui of the bored classes and calling for a radical recalibration of not just the treasury of Tudor tradition from which they sprang, but nothing less than all of society as a whole. These tittuping creatures cheekily, cheeringly, and sneeringly called themselves IDLES, immediately riffing even in name on a set of preposterous perceptions they would shortly come to be synonymous with gleefully destroying. Back with their fourth full-length in as many years, emblematically entitled Crawler, IDLES have brought the salacious, socialist snarl once again – and this time drawing on something even more primal and uncanny, presenting a set of sounds adjacent in meaning to the biting of one’s own lip until it bleeds, or the Tyburn Hanging Tree if it could talk.

An album a year might represent an ostentatious and angular momentum for a band with fewer riles of fluorescence. IDLES, however, have never been short on panoramic parthenogenesis, nor human civilization ever impecunious with its pap. Since 2017’s Brutalism, IDLES have been unapologetically taking their wailing wire cutters to the whorled razor wire of the world. Second album Joy As An Act of Resistance is a humanist quarto that manages to be both a bridge of undertow chords and a sage elixir to countless many. Last year’s Ultra Mono was their Zoo TV moment, the sound of five crucially cognizant men lighting the undercarriage to their own parodied funeral pyres, and very much on purpose. Theirs is an anarchy stolen from a scarecrow, and the kind Mikhail Bakunin would have wholeheartedly endorsed.

IDLES is what happens when the Black Watch meets Charles Dickens’ Fagin: battle-born pickpocket princes get made – and the poached wallet or pilfered pocket-watch in question is likely your glowing ears and swelling heart. Featuring dual guitar groundwork shared by Belfast-born Mark Bowen (“Bowen”) and magnet-for-all-the-best-madness Lee Kiernan, Adam Devonshire (“Dev”) carving paths for underground bullet trains on bass, and their own affable-to-the-max Friar Tuck in Jon Beavis on drums, this band exhales coalescent air, charged with lit fuses, and Crawler is their feral fabula on fire. As for their fiendishly forensic frontman, there is a very good reason Garbage’s supernatural Shirley Manson took time out of her own performance at Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival 2021 (QRO photos) to admit from the stage to a raging crush on Joe Talbot – one rumored to be shared by a certain Piscean pensmith of the pixie persuasion working right here at QRO, though naturally it would be indecent to name any names.

Talbot is John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” brought to raucous life, but with none of the distended crudeness, and with a sprig of feverfew tucked behind his ear for luck – like one who would enthusiastically risk life and limb to rescue banned books from the jaws of the hydraulic press at his job as a trash compactor. Punk is notorious for a kind of glazed indifference that, when done right, can be intensely effective at undermining all manner of what is unctuous in this shared cesspool-sphere of ours. However, where punk is done best and most powerfully is wherever it finds itself fully suffused with sincerity of a seraphic sort, where its liberty-spikes are bent artfully toward, not away from, the urgency of the human cause. The best punk is always immunostained with integrity (see: Joe Strummer, any era).

By embracing this historical fact and actively inverting that more glum and glamorized adaptation of rebellion via their singular sketch of ragged cheer, IDLES present their version of virulence as a series of graphic prayers that wear proudly plebeian undergarments, rather than flashing the catchily aggressive social graffiti chosen by many of their more magazine-made chaos-compatriots of today as well as those of decades long departed. Disquieted by dallying and disunion, IDLES do not parse joy, and it is this brave quality that represents perhaps their most genuinely punk rock trait of all. If Iggy Pop is the Nero of all punk nihilists, Joe Talbot is the Exeter-existentialist edition of Shane MacGowan – but sober and searching.

Further endearing IDLES to anyone who values the visible scars of lived experience in a musician, Joe Talbot happens to also be in possession of a 10,000-yard stare the depth of which has maybe only previously been photo-documented in one such as Merle Haggard – cinematic levels of grief and trauma, drenched in malthouse colors, plain as day. Like Haggard, one glance at Talbot’s open face and fathomless eyes informs that the suffering latent in his hardscrabble upbringing has been visceral, personal, and very, very real – as is his artistic retelling of it and the way he carries himself because of it.

IDLES have meticulously crafted a band that serves as a forum for the undirtying of the hardest experiences humans endure, writing openly of stillborn babies, OCD, toxic masculinity, class wars, depression, anxiety, xenophobia, suicide, sexism, and dying parents – to name but a fistful. Yet, unlike our sometimes mirthless Merle, Talbot is the punk portmanteau of Dignan from Bottle Rocket and Duncan from Some Kind of Wonderful – which is to say that he has a crooked grin for every crooked turn in his life. Humor does not hide the hurt or the hubris in Talbot; it is rightly deemed the only habit fit to dress such things to best advantage. Nothing is off-limits in IDLES territory, least of all open-heartedness and raw vulnerability.

Crawler is puzzle-play in dark neon, co-produced by Bowen and American hip-hop hero, Kenny Beats. Each song has that classic IDLES f*#$-off-face-first attitude beneath scores of scrolling sentiments surrounding the many faces of self-discovery, like beatitudes housed in bee skeps. The blunt reality the record’s title conjures is as humanist in nature as everything else the band has ever done. The fact that the record’s dominant human image is that of an astronaut – a proverbial ‘crawler’ of the final frontier – speaks the loudest of its theme. Crawler is an album rotating around all the reasons, both positive and negative, that we go slow and stay near to or drag against the ground. Talbot, in particular, knows something deep and intrinsic about Mother Biology’s ruthless roulette on this score, having endured multiple surgeries as a small child to rectify a clubbed foot, to say nothing of the many other private struggles he has never hesitated to candidly share on or off the stage.

It is a skint-knee trade, being human. At best, all of us are ever but crawling toward our better natures and best renditions of self at any given time. There is growth for those who want it, but there is hardly ever completion – which may resonate in the masterful way that so many notes and chord progressions on Crawler deliberately refuse to ‘resolve’ to the expectant ear. Opening track “MTT 420 RR” is a subterranean alarm sounding, for what tragedy we know not yet. Talbot gives a little off-kilter, almost whispered whistle after the first lyric and there is revealing robot talk in the background as he sings of craving love and soul, two distinctly warm-bodied wishes. “MTT 420 RR” is both spoken word and gasped. It houses bursts of abbreviated, thunderous drum breaks that sound like miniature “In the Air Tonight” rolls and the incomparably beautiful lines such as “The swell of heaven on my dashboard,” eventually fading out like the siren of the beginning diminishing into the distance.

“The Wheel” drives like a drunk Ramones rhythm, this time the out-of-control car in question being maternal alcoholism. This one works on the ingenious idea of the church of the addict, complete with a chorus of hallelujahs hailed down like invitations for any listening deity to send its best destruction, or mockingly spat like the bad morning taste of chemically-dependent myopia. “When the Lights Come On” is a quietly sinister painting done in Kings of Leon “Closer” colors, all nightshade and truncated poetry. Lines like “I wanna tear through the night like an angel flare / I’m a ten-foot snare,” permanently sear the mind and the cochlea in the best way.

Car Crash” is structured around the kind of impressively extreme dynamics that IDLES have constructed their signature sound upon from their inception and judders like the wreckage it describes, while “The New Sensation” plays home to a Miami Vice-like tropical ‘80s beat that devolves into Misfits-level threat-riffage. This one also holds what is arguably this record’s most lambently sardonic (and thus most IDLES) line of all – “Then scream ‘I’ll die for the cause’ / What else could your lungs be for” – and its marriage of vocal chanting with guitar-helmed under-rhythms sounds like something swinging pell-mell on monkey bars with the express intent of falling or maiming itself in the attempt.

“Stockholm Syndrome” makes sophisticated lyrical reference to “Hume’s guillotine,” gives the stark advice to “Just suck the marrow, boy/Don’t bite off what you can’t chew,” and offers shelter to the meeting point of pacifists and nihilists – which is both the bedrock of IDLES’ ferocious fiefdom and a winking hearkening back to/expansion of the ideas they effortlessly ensnared and entombed in “Stendhal Syndrome,” off the first album.

“The Beachland Ballroom” (QRO review) arrives with a twinset of videos wherein Part 1 and Part 2 seem to function as interior and exterior mirrors to the themes at hand. In the first, a bloodshot Talbot, in extreme closeup, is covered in sweat that looks like tears and glistening with tears that might well be sweat. He is being harangued by a light treading across his face that may be that of an inquisitive officer or could be a dancefloor strobe – an astute metaphor for the whole assembly of IDLES’ inclusive and self-reflective oeuvre. In the second video, a be-suited Talbot ape-walks forward, toward the camera, like he is pulling a tractor trailer with his midsection alone. He staggers toward the viewer repeatedly, ever yanked backward from the lens by an unseen force that also finds him hanging at an impossible angle off a rooftop.

The sound of “The Beachland Ballroom” is as waltz-like as any punk ballad could ever hope to be, which is beautifully meta considering its title. Talbot sings on this one like a ‘50s crooner and, as we have rarely before enjoyed the chance to hear him sing in long form like this, the tensile strength to his voice underpinning the notes is miraculously soothing, like a lattice of rebar for the rhythmic revelations and ruminations of the words. And what words they are in this one! “And then I set on all fours / And I made, I made, I made, I made” – a feral wolf’s lyric. Joe Talbot is the alpha that admits to being forever a pup – therein unveiling the secret to his automatic primacy: the perennial self-questioning of it.

“Crawl” hinges on a motorik beat that is bound to make even the most tepid listener start mosh-spinning from its very first hit. The lyric “And yeah, I’m a fucking crawler/Crawling hurts but it works for me” advertises the printed moral of the whole album. What is most “mani-fucking-fique” in this song, beyond that epithet itself, is the way Bowen and Kiernan frame an architecture of guitar sounds that land like skyscrapers dropped from above in the calculated experiment to squash or scare all fleeing feet below. The feeling native to “Crawl” is reminiscent of the video for “Voodoo People” by The Prodigy, where the band is depicted lying in wait for their audience, dressed in gangster gear and throwing Molotov cocktails at the hordes of the hunted running for their lives down darkened and dirty streets. “Crawl” is the same sort of harmonic hunger game, and one in which Talbot and the tribe have long ago won your district but you won’t know that until it’s far too late.

Both “Meds” and “Kelechi” give one pensive pause, the former for its suggestive alignment of the words “medicate” and “meditate,” the latter for its being this record’s lone instrumental and written by Talbot in tribute to a friend he lost to suicide. Short, baleful, and reverent, “Kelechi” presents wavelets of guttural heavenward hums that turn into the acoustic finger-picking guitars of the sleeper jewel that is “Progress.” This one is an angel’s reverie, a peal of bells with used-needle pasts, lilting about the heaviness of bones and the lightness of grace.

“Wizz” fizzes the skin like the pink champagne cocaine it is both remembering and admonishing, and “King Snake” parades punchy guitar interspersions that feel like their own quickly escalating boxing matches. “King Snake” is likewise a lyrical Eden, lines like “I’m the duke of nothing / I’m the sultan of sans” being worthy of any holy book of syllables. Reflection on the idea that the king snake in nature is the one you want in your yard because it is the only one that eats the venomous variety, and thus the only one which those poisoned fang-bearers fear, brings the song additional symbolic acumen.

Crawler does much to remind any listener that ILDES is and will forever be a working-class band. These Bristol boys have busted their crusty Cat and Wheel asses to be where they are now, and they have done it with a purity of work ethic nearly unheard of in the modern musical melee that calls for packaging over purpose no matter who you are. Bowen-from-Belfast is still a licensed dentist who has worked in a practice as well as offering dental care in prisons throughout IDLES’ crawling ascent to where it may seem to uninformed onlookers they simply woke up one day. Such everyman insights lend much to the recurrent crash tropes and collision images that dominate Crawler from start to finish. Here are five men who have no illusions whatsoever about how lucky they are to be doing what they are doing, and how quickly and randomly it can all be taken away.

It was The Icicle Works that first sang of bringing a “Whisper to a Scream”, and it was Manic Street Preachers that collectively sighed-to-a-scream in “La Tristesse Durera,” but it is IDLES who has schooled everyone on what it sounds like when the shrillest scream is the whisper and the unheard sigh is the support beam under the scream. Joe Talbot and the crew make the best case for the sanctity of the torn soul we’ve seen in reflective rock since Henry Rollins. IDLES are nothing short of Lockean in their ideas of true liberty, and it is safe to presume that New York rats will go to bed before this bunch sleeps on that which sets them aflame.

Crawler is the latest and best-yet evidentiary proof that revolution has never been a marketing tool for IDLES. They are interested in forging a fair and truth-based covenant amongst their collective, not hate-watching the ills of society in a fashionably trenchant way against a backdrop of gall wallpaper like so many others. IDLES are not here to do any damage to anything that doesn’t need a bit of warring up. Their innate aggression and cathartic ethos is only ever directed at those institutions, both public and personal, which absolutely need unrepentant tearing down. Like when Duncan crashes the rich-kid party in Some Kind of Wonderful, Crawler is IDLES’ musical way of balancing the social-emotional scales and saving the day, and seemingly with the exact same explanatory phrase at work at the center of it all: “We’re just gonna stick around here, try to crank this party up to a nice, respectable level. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna mess him up. I’m not even gonna touch him. I’m just gonna make him cry, just a little bit, by just looking at him.”

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