Simultaneously hard to believe, and entirely unsurprising, Bristol punk band Idles’ much-anticipated third album Ultra Mono is an aimless, complacent, and lazy disc of rehashed instrumentation and unforgivable, laughable lyrics that does nothing to further their trajectory as artists, and comes close to undermining the spiky brilliance of their previous two records, the punchy Brutalism and the close-to-perfect Joy As An Act Of Resistance.
It’s protest music with nothing in its targets, a limp squib of a disk that doesn’t explicitly engage with any of the issues of the day (critically damaging, given their penchant for social media epithets and ethos of togetherness), yet also doesn’t have enough sweep to convincingly deliver on a state-of-the-nation address. It marks the first time that Idles sincerity can genuinely be called into question; although before they received more than their fare share of criticism for being a bit soft-touch, and a bit wooly, I was always willing to forgive their non-specificity because it felt borne out of a genuine desire for unity, and change.
And yet. It’s hard to listen to Ultra Mono, now, and not worry that they’ve been on a wind-up this whole time. The albums opens with War, a dead-on-arrival piece of interminable, limp nonsense that has the audacity to begin with the lyrical stinkbomb Wa-ching!/That’s the sound of the sword going in/Clack-clack, clack-a-clang clang!/That’s the sound of the gun going bang-bang, and then expects you to take it seriously.
(frontman Joe Talbot justifies this immediately terminal opening salvo as ‘sounding like a Wu-Tang lyric’ and an ‘explosion of not overthinking’, which, well, I can’t disagree with the second bit. Talbot also has spoken about how he wrote the lyrics for more than half the songs while he was singing them in the recording booth, which belies a self-satisfaction that borders on smug).
It only gets worse, such as on The Lover, which sees Talbot bark ‘fuck you, I’m a lover’, because he’s a lover, you see (he also tells his haters to ‘eat shit’- wow!). Then there’s the Jamie Cullum featuring (yes, really) track Kill Them With Kindness, in which Talbot says ‘your humdrum, sarky slow lines don’t bother me none’. You wouldn’t be surprised that Model Village gets its swipe in at the ‘gammons’, but just because you wouldn’t be surprised doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be disappointed.
Musically it’s no better; the signature crunch and pummel is there, but without the power of the lyrics alongside it, the effect is as if they’re playing to an empty room. Other than the alarm-like punch of Grounds (the only near-tolerable cut on this album), there is nothing we haven’t heard before. Despite touting production from Kenny Beats (‘To Mr and Mrs Beats, a son… Kenny’), there is something close to anonymous about the guitar and drum-work here, with chord changes that sound suspiciously familiar and final verse breakdowns that are becoming worryingly easier to predict.
The cumulative effect, other than that of wild-eyed disbelief that they somehow thought this was acceptable to release, is the sense of Idles as a band who have bought into their own hype; so many of the lyrics seem to presage the criticisms I have of this record that you almost feel as though they knew they had a clunker on their hands, and wanted to save themselves through honesty (which they absolutely don’t). Even the front cover, of a man being hit in the face with a giant ball, feels a little bit like a visual metaphor for the enjoyment level of the music on this album.
The end-result is a tone that skews more Tom Petty than Fugazi, angry music to soundtrack the weekly shop at the big Tesco; punk for dads who haven’t had an erection since the Pixies released Bossanova. It is a potentially reputation-ending disappointment, and Idles will have to try exceptionally hard to save their integrity after it; that, or they end up going in ever-decreasing circles around their own sonic drain, and in 2040 release whatever that years’ equivalent of Father Of All Motherfuckers ends up being.
I really, really, fucking hated this record. There’s a punishing irony to making an album that directly addresses rampant cynicism, that in turn seems to generate rampant cynicism in anyone who listens to it; for a band who love preaching to the choir, the hater-bait that runs through this record feels depressingly close to trolling. Zero stars. Not a single ittle bitty star. Go to your rooms, Idles, and think long and hard about what you’ve done.