At the onset of lockdown, as busy lives drained away only to be refilled with ennui and baking, Zadie Smith wrote this adage: “The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.” Before the pandemic, society offered a tacit contract whereby artists, and few others, could essentially act like children: painting flowers, blowing into flutes, storyboarding plots where lurid men meet their comeuppance, yelling “A heathen! From Eton! On a bag of Michael Keaton!” into microphones—anything that might elicit joy or clarity in the general populace. Some art, Smith conceded, has political potential, but artistic urgency is nearly always a metaphor, borrowed from “the urgency of the guerilla’s demands, or the activist’s protests.” Essential workers are necessary. Art is more like baking a sourdough loaf: something to do with our long days.
Smith articulates a common misgiving about Necessary Art—one that bodes poorly for Ultra Mono, wherein Idles stage a risky foray into the form. The Bristol post-punks’ 2017 debut, Brutalism, and follow-up Joy as an Act of Resistance flirted with necessity but preferred irreverence, populating songs of Brexit Britain with cocaine connoisseurs and the far-right ghouls haunting Westminster halls. Any necessity in the music seemed, as it should, to occur by accident.
With Ultra Mono, Idles trump up the social values while continuing to occupy a peculiar British tradition: ornery blokes from outside the capital charismatically proclaiming moral truths in a tone that suggests they could also annihilate you in a bar fight. (This thing goes over particularly well at festivals.) Such groups embody the infinite promise of working-class rage—never mind their actual background—which can feel refreshing, since British class commentary rarely rises above vague talk of metropolitan elites and “ordinary voters.” In a war of subtext, we appreciate those brave or stupid enough to carry a megaphone.
The thrills and perils of flouting this social contract play out on Ultra Mono centerpiece “Model Village,” where shouter-songwriter Joe Talbot rails against a fictional village’s latent fascism, provincialist racism, tabloid-fuelled alarmism, and other moronic English values. In the process, he characterizes his villagers as “half-pint thugs” and “nine-fingered boys,” which inevitably feels a bit patronizing. Still, his willingness to slip into class stereotypes clarifies Idles’ political position: charitably as a conduit for proletarian anger, but primarily as a vent for the sort of leftists who can’t decide whether to valorize the working class or furiously condemn it for the calamities of Brexit and Boris Johnson.
Ultra Mono oscillates between the spry minimalism of “Model Village”—which bridges macho punk and, say, the Hives—and brawnier screeds aping Mclusky, albeit without the Welsh greats’ absurdism. The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow, Bad Seed Warren Ellis, and, improbably, Kenny Beats all make fairly anonymous contributions, presumably brought in to jolt the band from a creative rut. Throughout the record, promising flickers of invention—jittery electronics here, an elephantine squeal there—invariably leak into choruses built on mechanical, double-time strumming, with Talbot roaring indignantly over the top.
For a man wracked with moral outrage, Talbot sounds strangely unfocused, his characters now hollow composites and his lyrics stalled in an interzone between winking cliché and gibberish. “Clack clack clack-a-clang-clang/That’s the sound of a gun going bang bang,” he barks on “War,” with none of the astronomical flamboyance that might redeem such a line. Side B’s duskier sounds demand at least a moderately unhinged vocal presence, but Talbot is ruthless only in his efficiency. On the shoutalong “Carcinogenic,” he drones through a policy checklist—austerity, food banks, military spending, climate crisis—as if cramming for a job interview in the civil service. “Ne Touche Pas Moi” almost works as riot grrrl pastiche, until the appearance of Savages’ Jehnny Beth reminds us her own group would sooner dance the Macarena than serve threats as feeble as “This is a pistol/For the wolf whistle.”
Just as Talbot’s jabs at haters feel whiny, his declarations of solidarity, while sincere, often sound braggy. “[You’re] saying my race and class ain’t suitable,” he hollers on “Grounds.” “So I raise my pink fist and say, ‘Black is beautiful.’” Where to begin? Well, unlike civil rights matters, which demand allyship, the “Black is beautiful” movement does not seek white validation—in fact, the white gaze is exactly what it resists. To weaponize the term in this way is not a grave misstep, but it’s the sort of clumsiness that makes Idles’ good intentions feel squeamish.
Rather than plucking pretty mantras from a hat, authentic provocateurs mine injustice until they strike unpalatable truths. These may, through some magic hatch, lead to Necessary Art. Either way, I’m not sure Idles have the patience for it. “Model Village” is the one genuine provocation on a record that could otherwise have outsourced its politics to a woke publicity firm. On “The Lover,” Talbot defends Idles’ “sloganeering,” but instead of heeding the social media-era’s abundance of edifying slogans (“The system cannot reform itself”; “Every billionaire is a policy failure”), Ultra Mono charges into the discourse like a hobbyist at a rally. It’s not listening, just shouting. Not radical but restless. Not bad, just unnecessary.
Buy: Rough Trade
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