Though IDLES frontman Joe Talbot has been praised as an emotionally open and frank lyricist, we know little about the man himself. On the Bristol band’s debut album ‘Brutalism’ and its adored follow-up ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’, Talbot’s iron-clad manifestos of vulnerability, openness and the rejection of norms – largely among young men – saw him become the inadvertent mouthpiece for a new generation of rock music fans, and someone whose mantras about masculinity, grief and acceptance people would form their whole lives around.
While vulnerability was at the core of his message, Talbot’s words often came from an outward-looking standpoint, reflecting on a societal level more than a personal one. It got him as many haters as it did disciples; the frontman addressing the former increasingly on the band’s third album, 2020’s ‘Ultra Mono’ (“How’d you like them cliches?” he spat on ‘Mr. Motivator’), while doubling down on his trademark sloganeering. It’s only now on fourth record ‘CRAWLER’, a narrative-driven, sonically diverse course correction of an album, that he begins to let us in.
“‘Ultra Mono’ was a caricature of who we were, and we wrote that caricature intentionally to kill it,” Talbot tells NME in a new Big Read interview about the new album. The aim was to sever ties with the old IDLES and become an entirely new band; ‘CRAWLER’ rips apart the idea of what IDLES is, how they can sound and what they represent.
Across the new album, Talbot tells stories of his struggles with addiction. “It was February, I was cold and I was high,” the album begins on ‘MTR 420 RR’ on a slow-burning track of bubbling electronics written about a near-fatal car crash. ‘The Wheel’ sees him begging his mother to stop drinking when he was just 10-years-old. A song later, Talbot is “dancing with a Spaniard man” on a lonely dancefloor in ‘When The Lights Come On’, a sullen song about ensuring you’re the last person to leave a night out so you don’t have to go home and face your problems.
While it’s more introspective than before, ‘CRAWLER’ can also be more fun, like on ‘The New Sensation’, a funky strut of a track where playful lyrics (“shake your tiny tooshie like you don’t give a shit”) offer reprieve from the weightier subject matter elsewhere.
If there are frustrations with ‘CRAWLER’, it’s that the band’s new outlook and sonic ambition wasn’t taken further. The album’s unexpected diversions (‘Progress’, ‘Car Crash’, ‘The Beachland Ballroom’) are its most exciting parts by far, but on a number of tracks (‘Stockholm Syndrome’, ‘King Snake’) they slip back into an IDLES-by-numbers formula.
On their first three albums, IDLES instructed others to interrogate their feelings and live their lives being as emotionally open as possible. With ‘CRAWLER’ they take their own advice, adding a whole new dimension to an already beloved band. This appears a stepping stone in the band’s evolution, rather than the finishing line.
Release date: November 12
Record label: Partisan