It's fair to say that my relationship with IDLES is somewhat complicated.
While I enjoyed their 2017 show in Clwb enough to give it four stars, I remained "slightly wary" of them for reasons I found it quite hard to put my finger on. Second album Joy As An Act Of Resistance won me over (as it did a sizeable number of other people), though, and by February 2019 I was stoutly defending them from what seemed to be misguided and unfair criticism, first from Sleaford Mods and then from Fat White Family. I then witnessed the band closing out Green Man "with simultaneously furious and joyous abandon", though couldn't help but feel that the experience was marred both by the unusual boisterousness of the assembled audience and the slickness of the set.
And now, while I'll try to avoid forming prejudicial assumptions about new LP Ultra Mono - not least because I haven't heard it (it isn't released until 25th September) and because I actually think 'Grounds' hints at an interesting new direction, showing some evidence of the grime influence they've talked about - I can't help but feel that JR Moores' hilariously stinging review for the Quietus gives voice to all of my greatest concerns.
For a start, there's those lyrics. There's no getting away from the fact that the snippets that Moores singles out are risibly bad. In that early gig review, I noted Joe Talbot's ability to churn out "memorable line after memorable line"; regrettably, "Clack-clack, clack-a-clang clang / That's the sound of the gun going bang-bang" is nothing if not memorable. Even at his best, though, Talbot only seems capable of writing in slogans, the sort of things that will look good on a T-shirt. In that respect, he's a bit like fellow Bristolian Banksy, making valid points in a way that sometimes seems clunky and heavy-handed.
(I'd still strongly defend his determination to make those points, though, in the face of the Sleaford Mods/Fat White Family complaint that IDLES are puritanical social justice warriors. The band's albums might seem to be a checklist of issues, but even Moores concedes that "IDLES' hearts are in the right place" and a cursory glance at the news underlines that those issues need to be raised and discussed.)
Relatedly, there's Moores' observation that "challenging masculinity ... in such a routinely chest-beating way seems self-defeating". It's essentially like fighting fire with fire. Claiming that the songs are "so generically bellowing they could be filed under Sham 69" is comic hyperbole, but it does go a long way to explaining the proliferation of belligerent bell-ends in that Green Man crowd, and is something that has essentially troubled me from that first live encounter, when I said: "As ambassadors for peace, love and understanding, IDLES are certainly unorthodox." Ironically, Moores argues, the message is stated so bluntly and forcefully that it's actually lost in translation.
And finally there's the suggestion that they're the Emperor's new clothes and "not all they're cracked up to be". At that Clwb gig, I pondered why they were attracting such hype and also noted that Talbot's "constant gobbing into the air comes to seem like the behaviour of someone self-consciously playing at being a punk". Authenticity is a notoriously thorny issue in music, but Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson and Quietus head honcho John Doran clearly aren't alone in having questioned the self-image that IDLES have tried to cultivate.
I could also comment on what Ultra Mono's guest list (David Yow, Warren Ellis, Jamie Cullum) says about the band, but I'll reserve judgement until I've heard the results...