Idles‘ debut album, 2017’s Brutalism, felt like a necessary survival guide for the ugly and obnoxious era in which we find ourselves. Sufficiently loud and intense, Brutalism offered an affirmative response to the “punk rock will be great again” cliche, though to say their furious anthems were driven primarily by anger would be to miss the point. While Idles are neither a purely angry band nor a blindly optimistic band, they are a hopeful one, and even in their mockery of conservative British society in “Well Done” (“Why don’t you get a job?”) or their titanic single “Mother” (“The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich“) they did so with an implicit dose of positivity. In other words, don’t let the bastards grind you down. That their songs also exploded with manic energy only helped to add an injection of motivation amid a bleak socio-political atmosphere. Their message resonated widely, helping to make a self-released debut become one of the most acclaimed British albums of 2017.
Joy As An Act of Resistance, Idles’ second album and first to be released through Partisan, could have just as easily been the name of the band’s first record. It’s essentially the band’s M.O.—fighting back against systems of oppression and hate while having a fucking blast. And joy is an overwhelming part of Idles’ mission on album number two, the band playing as hard and as heavy as they ever have while giving the aural equivalent of a sweaty bear hug in the process. It’s post-punk and post-hardcore that’s meant to feel good, even though it doesn’t always—a few of the band’s members have battled addiction in the past, and singer Joe Talbot and his partner suffered the heartbreaking loss of their first child being stillborn. These moments of struggle and pain find their way onto the album, serving as reminders of the vulnerability—and resilience—that people have in common.
The duality of Idles’ music is on fully display in first track and first single “Colossus.” The band have rarely sounded quite so heavy as they do here, though lyrically Talbot pulls apart ideas of toxic masculinity: “I’m like Stone Cold Steve Austin/I put homophobes in coffins/I’m like Fred Astaire/I dance like I don’t care.” Talbot more explicitly addresses the problematic nature of how society views masculinity in “Samaritans,” declaring “I’m a real boy, Boy, and I cry/ I love myself and I want to try.” Though there’s a long list of socio-political ailments in the band’s sights here: On the taut, rhythmically pulsing “Great,” nationalism gets a much-needed kick in the shins (“Blighty wants her blue passport, not quite sure what the union’s for“), and the band shouts out a friend of theirs by name on “Danny Nedelko,” celebrating immigrants while delivering one of their catchiest songs to date.
There’s a lot of tenderness on Joy, however, and it allows Idles to stretch out their songwriting a bit. “Love Song” certainly sounds darker and sexier than much of the other material, but it’s a fairly direct declaration of affection toward Talbot’s partner, as well as a nod to Dirty Dancing (“I carried a watermelon“). The subdued, heartbreaking “June” is a rarity in the band’s catalog, letting off the noise a bit for a mournful dirge that allows Talbot the space to grieve for his stillborn daughter. It’s still intense, but emotionally so, devastating in just the first line: “Dreams can be so cruel sometimes.” But Idles still allow plenty of room for some good humored preening, and “Never Fight A Man With A Perm” is as hilarious as it is ass-kicking, directing a litany of insults toward some some unnamed mook: “Tryhard, you should’ve tried harder… You’re one big neck with sausage hands.”
As quotable as Joy is—and it’s easily the most quotable record of 2018—one line that seems the most important is one that feels entirely unplanned. In the closing track, “Rottweiler,” just as the band is on the verge of collapsing into total cacophony, Talbot shouts, “Keep going! Keep fucking going!” In the face of everything—broken ideas of masculinity, Brexit, personal tragedy, a music industry that keeps on trying to kill loud, guitar-based music—Idles never back down. But as the Bristol band play their asses off in an effort to rally people’s better angels into one joyous, noise-making community, there’s another line from “Great” that serves to summarize Idles’ mission: “We’re all in this together!”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.