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IDLES - Joy as an Act of Resistance Music Album Reviews

The riffs come hard, fuzzy, and fast on the Bristol punks’ deeply passionate second album—and the platitudes follow close behind.

IDLES’ new album concerns the tragedies of illness and loss, the addict’s vacillation between sobriety and vice, and the discomfort of rational people at the current state of the world. Joe Talbot, the band’s sardonic, growling singer, lost his disabled mother, cleaned up his substance abuse, and watched the xenophobic Brexit go down—all while his Bristol-based post-punk quintet blew up in his home country. While they mined grief and addiction on their heralded 2017 debut, Brutalism, its follow-up seeks to further focus their notorious, explosive, tongue-in-cheek energy. Now the name of the game is to see past the pain: Joy as an Act of Resistance.

The music on this record is unrefined in the same way that sugarcane is unrefined—any further processing would strip it of its vitality. In the few short months IDLES have spent touring stateside, they’ve gone from cult New York bar act to headlining midsize venues from Brooklyn to Peoria. Without a doubt, they’re playing the hits people who can muster the energy for a circle pit want to hear: Grief is OK, masculinity is toxic, racism sucks. (An actual cover makes its way into the mix, of Solomon Burke’s 1961 soul standard “Cry to Me.”) The riffs come hard, fuzzy, and fast. And the platitudes follow close behind.

Talbot delivers lyrics like “I am my father’s son/His shadow weighs a ton” with the passion of a desperate man, borrowing wisdom from very well-worn aphorisms. The lines come from opener “Colossus,” which twists the solitary act of Catholic confession into something collective: After the narrator atones for his personal sins, the song closes with a gang-shout chant, and the entire room is absolved. But what’s so revolutionary about bringing the mosh pit to the pulpit? In the face of the explicitly earthly problems IDLES are so eager to address, it feels like a cop-out.

And it isn’t the only moment on the album when Talbot retreats from more difficult conversations. The singularly heartbreaking experience of having a stillborn child permeates Joy. “There are so many people out there who probably think they are weird or different because they have lost their child,” he told NME. “Because there is a point of loneliness where you think you are the only person in the world grieving at that point.” It’s the kind of insight that, if harnessed in Talbot’s songs, could have made grieving listeners feel less alone. Yet IDLES never quite get there. Instead, they paraphrase a six-word story famously, but probably apocryphally, attributed to Hemingway: “Baby shoes for sale: never worn,” Talbot repeats on the turgid singalong “June.”

Across Joy as an Act of Resistance, IDLES struggle to balance the weight of human history with the absurdity of making music at what feels like the twilight of humanity. On “I’m Scum,” one of several overt political polemics. The line “I put homophobes in coffins” (with Talbot’s hint of a Bristol accent) is laughable enough to pass, while “This snowflake is an avalanche” belongs scrawled on the protest sign of a recently radicalized 13-year-old. When the songs—and the political convictions behind them—are inextricably tied to personal experiences, it’s a shame to paper over that vulnerability with something so broad.

When an artist reaches their wit’s end, the struggle to return from that point can fuel some of their most resonant work. IDLES share a certain strain of desperation with Modern Life Is War, the crossover hardcore act whose 2005 album Witness was a masterpiece of bottoming out. But what made that record so compelling as a portrait of a broken man was specificity that approached poetry, with the band finding solace by wallowing in the caverns of misfortune and describing every stalagmite that blocked their path. While IDLES don’t sound dishonest on Joy as an Act of Resistance, both the urgency and the vagueness of this record create the impression that a declaration of “joy” might be a little premature.

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