What do Mary Berry, Mark Rothko, Benedictine monks, Bovis homes, Francis Bacon, photographer Richard Billingham and TV chef Rachel Khoo have in common? They are all victims in the equal-opportunity offence blitzkrieg from Idles frontman Joe Talbot on the Bristol band’s debut album, Brutalism.
The record opens with an anonymous woman’s horrifying shriek of “NO SURRENDER!!”; it could have come from the last mallrat alive in Dawn of the Dead. What follows is ‘Heel’, a satirical takedown of the mundane conformity that is sold to us all on a daily basis: buy an identikit home, give up on your dreams, resign, comply, be invisible, SURRENDER. The point is sledgehammered home by Talbot’s repetition of the same set of four lines, a trick which sets the template for the album. His mission is to distil his message into its most simple form, and then not stop screaming it at you until you can’t get it out of your head.
It is highly, highly effective. If you come away from Brutalism without a renewed anger about all that is wrong with society, you’re a lost cause. Class struggle underlies many of the songs here: on ‘Mother’, he sings, “the best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich”; meanwhile, ‘White Privilege’ kicks off with the line, “how many optimists does it take to change a lightbulb? None! The butler changes the lightbulb”. The band’s biggest single to date, ‘Well Done’, is a blistering attack on the aspirational, middle class, second generation yuppy idea that everyone must aim for the same thing and be judged by the same measure.
All the while, Talbot’s tirades are set to a very accomplished musical backdrop. The band get to flex their muscles most proudly on ‘Divide & Conquer’, as ferocious columns of guitar tussle with the low prowling approach of the bass, while death-rattling drums set a formidable pace. Idles want nothing to do with the minimal arrangements of their agit punk contemporaries Sleaford Mods: think of them instead as a modern day Dead Kennedys, fronted by Johnny Rotten on speed, with a splash of Mark E. Smith’s surrealism thrown in.
Maybe the essence of the band is best captured in the track ‘Exeter’. The recurring mantra is “nothing ever happens, over and over and over again, nah nah nah”. It sums up the deadpan collision of boredom and anger which is at the beating heart of the album, and also gives a sense of their dark humour too. The second half of the song is essentially a list of blokes who are waiting in the bar for a fight, because what else is there to do. That the song is called Exeter can only be a cheap shot.
The humour is most obvious on ‘Stendhal Syndrome’, named after the psychological disorder that leads to people getting dizzy and fainting when confronted with works of art. Talbot takes down a list of the art world’s sacred cows one by one, although it’s unclear whether he’s calling BS on the syndrome itself or genuinely taking the artists in question to task – it’s probably safer to assume he’s taking the piss out of paragraphs like this that try to read too much into it.
In a sense, the two most surprising moments on the album are both to do with changes to Talbot’s vocal delivery. There is what can only be described as an outbreak of melody on ‘Rachel Khoo’, with intonations and everything, although one would need to follow TV cookery shows closer than me to know what she’s done to deserve such attention. Even more surprising is the one moment where Talbot allows his own vulnerability to show, on the album’s final track, ‘Slow Savage’. Over a haunted, reverbed piano part, his voice wavers a little, singing “I’m the worst lover you’ll ever have”. Apparently the final victim on his killing spree is himself.
Brutalism is 42 minutes of pent up fury, with countless specific targets, but one general theme: modern life is shit. If you don’t agree with that, you won’t have been tempted to listen to this album or read this review anyway. If you do agree, you need this album in your life.
Release Date 10/03/2017 (Balley Records)