Idles pushed their identity to the breaking point on 2020’s Ultra Mono. The Bristol band’s third album, the follow-up to their breakthrough album Joy As An Act of Resistance, cranked everything up to eleven. There were more wiry post-punk guitars, more sweaty, primal rhythms, and more brash, sincere, socially conscious lyrics. Their latest full-length Crawler sees the band do almost the exact opposite—switching up everything that Idles’ artistic and ideological identity had previously established.
Ultra Mono had also resulted in something of a backlash. For many of the band’s critics, the bugbear seemed to be the manner with which Idles delivered their socio-political messages. The band’s sincere and positive tone clashes with our contemporary cultural landscape defined by irony, cynicism and obfuscation. Within this milieu, Idles are a rare thing—they nail their colors firmly to the mast and espouse a form of sincerity that wholly embraces unity and optimism. Crawler finds the band alter this established ideological tone, in service of something more arch, ambiguous and less direct.
Whereas tracks like 2018’s hilarious “Never Fight A Man With A Perm” or 2020’s divisive “Anxiety” possessed such clear targets you could practically visualise the crosshairs, the aims of Crawler‘s 14 tracks are much more murky and enigmatic. Themes of survival, persistence and addiction abound, but these songs completely avoid the types of grand and brazen statements that Idles have become (in)famous for. Instead, frontman Joe Talbot’s lyrics are more personal and conceptual, though still humanist at their core. “Car Crash” uses the titular premise as a metaphor for personal collapse and recovery, “The Beachland Ballroom” tackles the themes of “Anxiety” with more tact and grace, while “Progress” blurs the line between addiction and transcendence.
Crawler also stretches the band into some intriguing new shapes. “Progress” pushes the furthest, towards a fascinating, Low-esque deconstruction rife with jittery synths and blurred distortion. “The Beachland Ballroom” is also a refreshing change of pace, defined by a waltz rhythm and Talbot’s pained vocals. Tracks like “The Wheel,” “Meds” and “King Snake” are more typical Idles fare, full of kinetic basslines and choppy guitars—a mode best exemplified by the engrossing “When The Lights Come On.” This track sees the old and new Idles collide in perfect unison, in service of a moody post-punk anthem reminiscent of The Walkmen or Interpol.
Your appreciation of Crawler will likely depend on what it is that you want Idles to be. Do you want a band that espouses bold, progressive political views, or do you want an abstracted exploration of more nebulous themes? Do you want blood-pumping, direct indie punk anthems, or expansive explorations of texture and mood? The jury’s still out on which version of Idles is the most effective, however it will be interesting down the line to see how the band reconciles the two. Crawler is an intriguing and mostly successful attempt at a new direction, even if it means that some of what made the band so successful in the first place gets lost in translation.