- by Jon Burke Rating:9 Release Date:2018-08-31 Label: Partisan Records
Joe Talbot, the heavily-tattooed, wild-eyed, politically-charged voice of IDLES, included a line in press materials for his band's forthcoming album, Joy As An Act of Resistance, which perfectly sums-up the listening experience: "This album is an attempt to be vulnerable to our audience, to encourage vulnerability; a mere brave naked smile in this shitty new world." It would be a challenge to come up with a better encapsulation of the emotions elicited by Joy As An Act of Resistance than naked vulnerability. Talbot and company assail masculinity, neoliberal economics, nationalism, anti-immigration sentiment while roaring about the importance of being open and honest with those you love and depend on. They cover all that ground and more over the course of twelve tracks, most of which rocket along at a breakneck pace, played at a high volume with an aggressive intensity few contemporary acts can muster. Joy As An Act of Resistance is a gut-wrenching, head-banging, thought-provoking attempt to address an age of willful ignorance in which impudence and immutability are considered admirable traits by a politically, socially, economically divided society.
For some clarity regarding the scope and depth of Talbot & company's aim on Joy As An Act of Resistance, consider the opening lines from track eight, "Television":
"If someone talked to you/ The way you do to you/ I'd put their teeth through/ LOVE YOURSELF! But that's just what they do/ The bastards make you not want to look like you/ So you pay through the nose/ To look like someone else/ Or the weirdos on the shelf/ LOVE YOURSELF/ LOVE YOURSELF/ LOVE YOURSELF!"
That last line isn't a request; it isn't some self-help, new age, bullshit mantra either. Instead, it's a sonic splash of cold water in the face. Talbot demands his audience awaken from their digital coma and understand that a culture of cool based upon the notion that you're inherently lesser is no culture at all and is actually just another greedy economic ploy. In the chorus, Talbot proposes an alternative way to live: "I go outside/ And I feel free!/ Because I smash mirrors/ And fuck TV!" It's not a call for anarchy nor is it an assault on the political structure; it's a plea for sanity within an existence so insane as to be harmful to those who live it. Joe Talbot is seeking ways to make micro changes which will ultimately have macro-sociological outcomes. The ironic "I suck and so do you" pose is no longer acceptable to IDLES if the end result is hatred, division and the assumption that caring equates to weakness.
IDLES aren't a band to shy away from challenging subject matter. One of the central targets of the record is the poisonous miasma surrounding modern notions of masculinity. Joy...'s opener, "Colossus" points to the childhood roots of toxic masculinity. Talbot was born with clubfeet, and underwent a dozen operations as a result. Due to his limited mobility, he gained weight and ultimately became the target of ridicule: "They laugh at me when I run/ I waste away for fun/ I am my father's son/ His shadow weighs a tonne." Talbot often wears shorts while he performs, exposing the physical scars of his youth, while singing about the concurrent emotional scars. For the adult take on why masculinity has become a real problem in 2018, "Samaritans" shows the kid from "Colossus" as a grown man trying to contend with the modern commodification of masculinity as a product sold to insecure men in search of an identity.
The most painful listen on Joy... is "June"-- a heartrending track about the death of Talbot's daughter, Agatha, during childbirth. The chorus, "Baby shoes for sale: never worn," is the closest Talbot comes to crooning on Joy... and despite the rather lovely vocals, as a parent, I found "June" nearly impossible to listen to. On an album full of shocking vulnerability, "June" is an open wound that will never properly close.
Despite all the raw and intensely depressing subject matter, Joy As An Act of Resistance proves IDLES have not lost their sense of humor. On "Never Fight A Man With A Perm", lines like "He thinks he's suave because he watched Get Carter/ You're not suave you're a catalog/ A plastic Sinatra/ Say you try hard/ But you should have tried harder." On "Love Song" Talbot professes his love for his girlfriend by growling out verses like: "I carried the watermelon/ I want to be vulnerable" and then "I fucking love you!/ Look at the card I bought/ It says I love you!" Throughout Joy..., Talbot's bandmates lock-in around the vocalist, matching and contrasting his tone and tenor with arguably the tightest post-punk you'll hear this year.
IDLES bassist. Adam Devonshire, and drummer, Jon Beavis, often take the fore on Joy As An Act of Resistance and the results are the best kind of monstrous. Beavis' savage beats and speed are well-matched by Devonshire's rumbling, equally nimble, bass tone. Devonshire and Beavis must be voracious listeners and students of music because IDLES boasts the rarefied rhythm section completely at home playing Fugazi, or something from the Stax catalog, in equal measure. Similarly, guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan grind out walls of buzzing distortion and stabs of discordant noise to create uncomfortable, intense and uplifting atmospheres which aid Talbot's delivery of verses about hate, pain, anger, death and loss peppered with the message that the only way out is through and the only way to get through is together. IDLES' frontman may stand in the spotlight but what Joy As An Act of Resistance makes clear is that Talbot stands on his bandmates shoulders to do so.
In 2018, there are few more divisive international issues than immigration. War, famine, unemployment and political upheaval have driven masses of people from their homeland to seek a better life in other countries. The reception received by these immigrants and refugees upon arrival has often been decidedly less humane than their status as fellow human beings would warrant. IDLES, in an attempt to address the issue head-on, released "Danny Nedelko" an anthem of unity for all in which Talbot, unambiguously declares his position:
"My blood brother is an immigrant/ A beautiful immigrant/ My blood brother's Freddie Mercury/ A Nigerian mother of three/ He's made of bones, he's made of blood/ He's made of flesh, he's made of love/ He's made of you, he's made of me/ Unity!"
Unambiguous declarations of truth, love and hope have rarely been so aggressively honest, so startlingly loud or so universally personal. There's no reason to believe IDLES set out to make the best record of 2018 but, for my money, they have. I'd say Joy As An Act of Resistance is required listening but then Joe Talbot would probably punch me in the teeth for being such a fascist. So we're done here and I'm off to listen to "Television" on repeat until it either gets out of my head or I drive down to the mirror factory with a baseball bat.