Album Review: IDLES // CRAWLER

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The beloved Bristol punks, IDLES, are back with their fourth album, CRAWLER, just over a year after their number one record, Ultra Mono, hit the stores. In contrast to the all-out explosiveness of tracks such as ‘Grounds’ and ‘Model Village’, Crawler crafts a more reflective, moodier soundscape. It’s a trip back to the post-punk era of Joy Division, Bauhaus and the Fall, but also to seminal goth rock groups The Sisters of Mercy and The Cult, who ventured into harder territory also embraced by IDLES on a couple of occasions during the LP. 

Take the record’s opener, ‘MTT 420 RR’. Named after the model of the motorbike which overtook Joe Talbot, lead singer, almost causing a fatal crash – as we’re reminded constantly of the details of the moment, “It was February / It was cold, / And I was high”. Despondence rules the roost, as simple synth and bass harmonies partner Talbot’s stricken tone. There’s no more resisting joy, just streams of regret. “You wanted love / You wanted soul / That’s not enough / To make him whole”; the possibility of a life cut short, commitments unfulfilled, haunts him. The delicateness of his vocals is certainly a new, but welcome, direction for the group, and it shows a previously unforeseen tenderness, which pairs well with groaning cellos and a sprinkle of guitars and synths. Grief arrives in other guises; the intro to ‘Progress’, the short, beautiful track ‘Kelechi’, is named after one of Talbot’s friends who killed himself in 2020: “The day he left for uni in Manchester… there was something about his leaving that made me think, I’m never going to see him again. I didn’t,” as he told Consequence of Sound. This short, meditative, almost churchlike electronica is a fitting moment of silence to mourn someone gone too soon. 

Seemingly in correspondence with the opener is the third track ‘When the Lights Come On’; it is reminiscent of Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’, with the scoping moodiness of the guitars, providing a platform for a slightly more aggressive Talbot. We have moments where he’s just shouting in frustration: “The kids are just NOT ALRIGHT”; and then suddenly, he’s quiet again, telling us “It feels like I’m coming home”. There’s a  mixture between realising, as Talbot informed Consequence of Sound, you’re too old for the intoxicated lifestyle in Bristol clubs and just forgetting this realisation once you’re loaded on more substances. The sudden changes in vocals reinforce this Janus-faced attitude to youthful hedonism from a man who feels… just too old for it. We’re provided with no resolution, yet, as the track just stops… 

The centrepiece of the album, the lead single ‘The Beachland Ballroom’, airs as a classic Elbow track. A marchlike instrumental correspondence proceeds, briefly interrupted again and again by a stream of a repeated chord. Over this landscape during a long, slinking verse, lead singer, Joe Talbot, pours out his fears about being lost – “I was on my knees for days / And then I set on all fours”. There’s a brief silence as he confesses further “I’m not praying, baby / I’m not begging, darling”, before the typical industrial brutality of the group’s sound returns. Here, Talbot mixes the verse and pre-chorus together, with a crushing tagline of “Damage, damage, damage” – you can hear the pain from the coarse sound of his throat. 

My favourite track is ‘Car Crash’ – IDLES’ ‘Jesus Of Suburbia’, as Talbot narrates a journey through the empty, dark streets of Bristol (replacing the quasi-cult figure on Green Day’s seminal American Idiot). Anger comes to the fore, a sense of self-pity and self-resignation – “I’m a car crash”, he admits in the chorus, before trying to get himself together amongst a stream of pop-culture and global political references. The music is dark, damp, dank – a deep bass note is paired with some screeching distortion and rolling drums and SFX as the vocals crescendo to a scream in each verse. It’s not a comfortable listen. But after an outro, where a sparse voice sings “I can hear my hands vibrate” over a quiet texture, the musical representation of a car crash arrives: overdriven guitars and thumping drums create a true portrait of mental anguish. 

There are tracks that could have been right at home during Ultra Mono; louder, crunchier tracks that surprise you in their contrast to what’s come before. Between the moody first and third track lives ‘The Wheel’, where the struggles of alcoholism are laid bare in this metaphoric song title. This is where The Cult comparisons will come to the fore, designed as a heavy glam rock track with punching, deep bass and drums. Just like its subject matter, the music itself is based on repetitions and canons, encapsulating the inescapable nature of addiction; there’s no one, though, in the attempting-to-be-rapturous chorus; “Can I get a hallelujah?” – there’s no response. ‘Crawl’, a semi-title track, delivers racing guitar chords – and they seemingly never stop at this insatiable, fast tempo. This resonates with the message of the song – “it’s about the turning point, after you’ve crashed”, Talbot admits; “keep going, you’ll get there”. The lyrics reflect this adamance: “I’m a fucking crawler / Crawling hurts, but it works for me” crowns the chorus; in the outro, there’s even a rare display of Franglais pride: “I’m feeling magni-fucking-fique”. 

Two of the final three tracks do direct us towards the light. ‘Whizz’ is a delicious, 29-second treat, seemingly modelled after the infamous Napalm Death track, ‘You Suffer’ (though roughly 22 times the length). It is designed to be incoherent; as Talbot told Consequence of Sound, “it sounds a bit like cocaine”, using texts from his old drug dealer as lyrics, having sobered up, but not blocking his number – therefore receiving all this fresh lyrical material! ‘The End’, fittingly the final track on the album, takes Trotsky’s perspective in the final days of his life, as he knew Stalin’s henchmen were on their way to kill him off. The chorus lifts the words from his diary as he watches his wife in the garden: “In spite of it all / Life is beautiful”. Talbot has struggled with mental health issues during his life, and he admittedly found it tough during lockdown; but this message is one of defiance, of picking yourself back up and facing the world. And as it’s accompanied by IDLES’ typical industrial sound at the end of an oft-sparse record, it shows the group digging themselves musically and lyrically out of the dark. 

Overall, IDLES deliver a fresh take on their bellicose, angsty punk that stretches out to a wider variety of musical soundscapes and delivers a reflective and emotional take on addiction. The listener is allowed to connect on a deeper level with Joe Talbot’s own struggles – and perhaps provide some comfort to those who are going through their own battles with addiction. It might just be their best record yet. 

Words by Matthew Prudham 


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