Photo by Tom Ham
Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is CRAWLER, the fourth full-length album from British punk rockers, IDLES.
As fans of the Bristol punk provocateurs know, IDLES are first and foremost a live band. Led by Joe Talbot’s palpable, and sometimes menacing, energy, watching the five-piece ensemble command a stage could be likened more to a primal ritual than a typical Thursday night out. Now, with their fourth album, CRAWLER, the band has somehow transmuted their signature live ascent into aural chaos, chased by collective cathartic release, into a bold collection of 14 tracks.
Where last year’s Ultra Mono reflected a band with their defenses up, tense as if they’d been bracing for impact, CRAWLER is sonically (and literally) what happens when you’ve avoided a near-tragic collision — your racing heartbeat slows, your gratitude swells and you realize you have a whole life to look forward to.
The album paints a portrait of trauma, addiction and recovery, as experienced by Talbot. And though he’s enlisted tearse and direct lyrics in the past, CRAWLER‘s songwriting is poetic, languid and, according to him, honest. The album was co-produced by IDLES guitarist Mark Bowen, and alternative hip-hop mainstay Kenny Beats, whose involvement may have been a warning shot that the band had no intention of sticking to a decidedly punk sound. CRAWLER sees them relishing in a wide range of musical influences, because as Tabot told NME, “I know what Bowen and I love, and what we listen to, and it’s not The Clash.”
“The Beachland Ballroom,” which takes its name and inspiration from the famed Ohio venue, sees Talbot putting that to task while climbing into new vocal territory. In it, he delivers soul with a sneer, offering a blistering ballad backed by organ and electric guitar, underscored by a tension that reaches a percussion-led breaking point at the bridge. The evocative “Car Crash” follows Talbot reliving a near-fatal collision over heavy distortion and pounding drums, reflecting on how momentary events can haunt your memory for eternity.
Though most of the album sees Talbot turning his gaze away from the world at large, and back on himself, when there is talk of politics, it’s bolstered with levity. In “The New Sensation,” Talbot references UK politician Rishi Sunak’s mid-lockdown call for artists and musicians to simply retrain and find new jobs. The dance track highlights the idiocy of that comment over breakneck drumming and warped guitar, with Talbot rapping, singing, “You just gotta change your stance up / And re-train as a dancer,” but also, “Shake your tiny tooshie like you don’t give a shit.”
The album opens with “MTT 420 RR,” pulling you in with slow-paced synths. Talbot leans into his vibrato and songwriting prowess as he recalls watching a motorcyclist come within inches of death while he was high and cold on a February night. The track is eerie, abrasive and stirring. As he sings, “Are you ready for the storm?”over a passing influx of drums, you experience the tightening with no release that he experienced.
From start to finish, CRAWLER is introspective without losing intensity. It’s what a punk album should be: defying genre, defying expectation and, in some moments, even defying death. IDLES could have easily cloned the formula they used to reach No. 1 in the UK with Ultra Mono, but instead they gleaned from their own harrowing experiences, made the music they actually wanted to listen to and found themselves in the sweet spot between accepting the darkest moments of the human experience and celebrating the fact that we get to be alive at all. To borrow from the words of a reviewer — who succinctly described seeing IDLES play an “unruly” gig in St. Paul, Minnesota — yes, CRAWLER “hurts, but in all the right ways.”