DARCY BOUNSALL reviews IDLES’ Joy as an Act of Resistance.

Bristol-based punk outfit IDLES’ Joy as an Act of Resistance. is the swift follow-up to their 2017 debut Brutalism and builds on the momentum of this previous album as a call to arms for the disempowered. It is a rallying cry against the feelings of isolation that are the product of perverse identity politics. IDLES’ blunt and honest approach is sharply refreshing. Their cut-throat, progressive lyricism and raw, scuzzy delivery enabled their meteoric rise to fame out of virtual anonymity in 2018.

On first hearing ‘Mother’ from Brutalism I found an anthemic quality to the song. The lyrics bent uncomfortably from shouting sarcastic political jibes: ‘the best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich’ to the blunt statement that ‘sexual violence doesn’t start and end with rape.’  When I first saw it performed live, as a precursor lead singer Joe Talbot simply shouted: This song is about feminism after which I started to believe, that despite popular opinion, punk was not dead. Last September when Joy as an Act of Resistance. reached the top five in the UK Charts – sandwiched amongst the likes of Rita Ora and Little Mix, I became sure of its revival.

The album delves into emotional subjects from illness and bereavement to struggles with addiction. In the song ‘June’ for instance, Talbot expresses his extremely personal loss at having a stillborn daughter. Combining such emotional substance with their outrageously biting political bent, IDLES have managed to create something completely unique. The caustic lyricism of Joy as an Act of Resistance. parallels that of electronic punk duo Sleaford Mods and is slightly reminiscent of The Fall’s shrewd-tongued Mark E Smith. In anti-Brexit anthem ‘Great’ Talbot snarls ‘You can have it all / I don’t mind / Just get ready / To work overtime.’ The song is so in tune with current antagonisms that define a divided country it becomes hard not to scream along. Similarly, pro-immigration ballad ‘Danny Nedelko’ laments scare tactics used to shift blame onto migrants with the chorus ‘Fear leads to panic / Panic leads to pain / Pain leads to anger / Anger leads to hate’, the song being named after a friend of the band who came to the UK from the Ukraine about a decade ago. A personal favourite ‘Television’ mocks unattainable standards of beauty that are portrayed in the media. In all, the album mourns a political climate that is polarising individuals and acts instead as a passionate and heartfelt cry for unity.

The most compelling aspect of IDLES’ message in Joy as an Act of Resistance. is their brutal attack on traditional masculinity. The deeply throttled ‘Colossus’ and the sardonic cries in ‘Samaritans’ tackle an epidemic of gender conditioning. Talbot cites Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man as an inspiration for the lyrics of this second song: ‘the mask of masculinity, it’s a mask, a mask that’s wearing me.’

The band’s desire to highlight issues faced by those who feel constrained by traditional male roles is invigorating. They are engaging in a trend that sees male artists expressing feelings of constraint imposed by rigid forms of masculinity which is reminiscent of both Robert Webb’s autobiography How Not to Be a Boy and similarly Simon Amstell’s Help. It shows that stereotypes can be extremely dangerous for both men and women. I can be vocal about pressures associated with my gender and am grateful for supposedly feminine qualities such as being open and honest. However inherent in the constraints of masculinity is an impetus to be strong and somewhat silent, characteristics that can be detrimental to people’s health. IDLES demonstrate that we must all work to undo a culture of toxic masculinity if we are to be free of its damaging consequences.

This message is particularly salient when considering the community that have formed around the band. ‘The AF Gang’, a Facebook fan group that now totals over 13,000 people, was originally created by a handful of fans who would share photos and organise meet-ups before gigs. Now the group sees members open up about experiences of anxiety, depression, and how the band has acted as a catalyst allowing them a space to open up and talk. In an interview with CRACK magazine earlier this year Talbot stated that he started the band for the same reason – to be part of something greater, to not feel alone, stating ‘it’s a community of people, who are jaded by being made to feel shit.’

If Joy as an Act of Resistance. lacks anything it is perhaps the rawness that was so palpable in their debut album Brutalism. The candid, small-town and rough-around-the-edges appeal has clearly departed with the pressure of having to write songs for a much larger audience. Nonetheless IDLES’ sound remains unique, their message is raw and, most importantly, their own. The magnetism for me is what comes into focus when their exceptionally sharp lyricism meets their nail-biting music. Seeing them live is a cathartic experience, something akin to what I imagine seeing The Clash must have felt like. Joy as an Act of Resistance. is not a distraction from the decaying state of the world but a strangely glorifying antidote.

Joy as an Act of Resistance. was released by Partisan Records on 31 August 2018.

Featured image courtesy of crackmagazine.net