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Britain’s literate punk revivalists’ album of love

The new album, ‘TANGK’, could come as a surprise for many IDLES’ fans because it shows a shift, not a very subtle one, by the band towards a more melodic and accessible sound

Joe Talbot of the British band IDLES, in June 2022. Photo: Getty Images
Joe Talbot of the British band IDLES, in June 2022. Photo: Getty Images

Recently, Joe Talbot, vocalist and frontman of the fiercely angry post-punk British band, IDLES, donned a new hat. He narrated a bedtime story for CBeebies, the BBC-owned free-to-air broadcast channel for children. The story, Under The Love Umbrella, was a tender little tale about how wonderful a feeling love can be. For those familiar with the IDLES’ and Talbot’s ferocious music with literate yet aggressive lyrics that deal with society, life, and, importantly, politics, the sound of him gently reading a bedtime story for CBeebies’ target audience, which is children aged six and under, can come as quite a surprise.

As much a surprise as the IDLES’ fifth and newest album, TANGK, might have been for fans of the band. Five years ago, when IDLES had just begun to be noticed around the world—with much acclaim, I might add—I had written in this column about how they marry the anger and irreverence of punk with well-structured musical compositions and highly literate lyrics that often comprise forthright and uncompromising views on contentious issues such as the unbalanced state of world, immigration, inequality, elitism, and cultural biases; and of how their songs, mainly written by Talbot, contain deep references to history and society, particularly relating to Britain.

The spittle-spraying anger that marked the way Talbot delivered his lines, part spoken word, part song, quickly became IDLES’ hallmark and it was a large part of what got the band its fans across the world. In a short span of time, IDLES have grown significantly in popularity. Their albums Joy As An Act Of Resistance (2018) and Ultra Mono (2020) both reached No.1 in the UK album charts, demonstrating their commercial appeal. In the US, their multiple tours have got them a solid fan base, drawn by the energy of their music and their engaging stage presence.

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At the core of IDLES’ live performances is Talbot. He throws himself into every performance, moving around the stage with a raw and unbridled intensity. He often jumps, crouches, and interacts with the crowd, creating a contagious energy that feeds into the entire experience.

His voice is a powerful instrument, capable of delivering both aggressive screams and soulful crooning.

That’s why TANGK could come as a surprise for many IDLES’ fans because it shows a shift, not a very subtle one, by the band towards a more melodic and, probably, more accessible sound. Whereas Talbot has often sounded menacing and enraged on many of their past albums, on TANGK, there are songs that are distinctly soft, tender even. On A Gospel, he sounds sad and gentle as the song opens with the words: “Lay me down/ On the floor/ I’ll take the news better/ I am already torn.” It’s a love song, about broken love. For those of us who got hooked to IDLES by way of albums such as Brutalism (2017), Joy As An Act of Resistance, or even Ultra Mono, it was the acerbic wit, and the hardcore in-your-face angriness that drew us to them. In contrast, TANGK can, at least sometimes, seem mellow. Heck, the album seems to also be about love, longing and break-ups.

On Roy, Talbot, 39, who identifies as bisexual, has a chorus that goes: “Baby, baby, baby/Baby, baby, babe/ Baby, baby, baby/ I’m a smart man, but I’m dumb for you.” It’s quite an evolution for a band that has, in the past, blasted xenophobia; skewered politicians; and roasted the elite in their lyrics. Have IDLES gone soft, then?

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There is, for sure, a change in tone in TANGK. Some of that is because of the music. The band recruited the English producer Nigel Godrich, famous for his association with bands such as Radiohead, Beck, and Arcade Fire, for the album and its sound is IDLES’ most ambitious and striking work yet. Punk’s urgent idiom of sonic rawness has given way to a more swooning, melodic and electronic soundscape on TANGK. And on songs such as the aforementioned A Gospel, Grace, and Dancer, Talbot’s vocals can seem less angry and more full of gratitude and celebration. The signature passion and energy of the band remains, though, and that is a good thing.

TANGK can disappoint some fans of IDLES who might miss the menace and confrontation that their earlier albums conveyed. Yet, the new turn that their music has taken on the album could be timely. By the time the band released Ultra Mono in 2020, a tiny bit of sameness seemed to creep into their music. The obligatory rawness evoked a sense of deja vu. This is something the band might have realised earlier.

On 2021’s Crawler, which is an outstanding album, probably because their “punk” sound was beginning to grate, the band tried incorporating other genres: soul, electronic, and rock. And instead of a trademark explosive opener, MTT 420 RR (named after a powerful motorcycle), the first song on that album was softer and more contemplative.

On TANGK, IDLES take that evolution further up a notch or two. The lyrics lean positive; the music is denser and more crafter; and the mood is more introspective. Those can’t be bad things for an album, can they?

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. He posts @sanjoynarayan

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