You have to crawl before you can fly

What can I say about IDLES? At the most fundamental, of course, they’re just a band like many others. To me, personally, they produce the music that’s kept me going through the coronapocalypse. I’ve started carrying them in my pocket when I go into a supermarket, ready to block out the inevitable hideous muzak (why is it so loud and so screechy?) . And any time I feel like humanity is a lost cause, I just have to go into the AF Gang group on Facebook to see people supporting each other as they talk about the toughest of subjects and feelings. Above all, I see a band that’s developing, thinking, both about their own personal situation and the wider state of the world. And I like that. We need more thinkers, desperately.

What I didn’t like, on first listen, was IDLES’ latest album, Crawler. It was announced out of the blue six weeks ago with a single, Beachland Ballroom, that was also – to me – not at all typical of IDLES. It sounds like something Amy Winehouse might have sung. And I absolutely hated Amy Winehouse’s music. But it took about 30 seconds to realise how not all soul songs are equal. How the very fact that Joe Talbot is an unlikely soul singer, and Bowen, Lee, Dev and Jon are an unlikely soul band, makes it work. And that break… breaks me. Every time. I began – like many other fans – finding myself singing the words “Damage. Damage. Damage” to myself everywhere I went.

So I was looking forward to the album. Then two weeks ago another single, Car Crash, was released. And this one gave me such a visceral reaction that I only listened to it once. Partly that’s because of the video, which consists of clips of car crashes from old films, and is frankly unwatchable if you happen to have a severe headache, which I had, and which continued to haunt me for the next ten days. But it seemed aggressive yet without the grace-in-violence combination I’ve come to expect from IDLES.

By now I was getting worried. I’ve never before been aware of the arrival of an album to this extent. I’ve never been this invested in a band, this eager yet terrified for the new release.

So when the album dropped, I waited a whole ten hours before listening to it (and not just because I was asleep for eight of those hours). And, as I’ve already said, I didn’t like it. I couldn’t see IDLES in there. It felt like another band. A band I didn’t know. I couldn’t see myself watching this live, I couldn’t imagine listening to it over and over.

And yet, even then, there were things I liked. Really liked. MTT 420 RR, a spooky, pulsing number with Joe’s voice drawling over it, feels like it’s pulling you into an alternate universe. The rousing lyrics of Crawl. The fantastically eerie Progress, with a complex, rambling bass and apparently random electronic chimes wandering across the soundstage. The brief, John Peel-esque shoutiness of Wizz. The triumphant, dumbfounded, beautiful conclusion of The End.

Actually, come to think of it, maybe I did like it after all?

Crawling to Crawler

I listened to it again, while laying carpet. And on the second time around, it all suddenly fell into place. The reason why it felt like another band is because it is another band. This isn’t just IDLES shouting about the injustice of it all, or being the self-conscious caricature of themselves we saw in Ultra Mono. (Although we still get that version of them in tracks like The New Sensation, probably my least favourite song, largely because I just don’t believe Rishi Sunak’s inhumanity deserves a whole 4 minutes of anyone’s time.)

No, here, in Crawler, the theme of the album in some way replicates the journey of the band, not just Joe’s personal journey – being at the bottom, being ashamed of it and wanting to do more, and finally realising that they’ve come out of it, and that the terrible journey to redemption was, in fact, also beautiful.

I still don’t like all of it, but I don’t have to. Neither does anyone else. If there’s any band working today that means a million different things to different people, where a group of fans will all have different favourites on different days of the week, and depending whether they’ve just seen a snowflake fall or a Rottweiler or a headline about immigrants, or a daisy, it’s IDLES. To have injected warmth and magic into so many mundane references for so many ordinary people is admirable in itself.

But this, Crawler, this album that sounds like it’s another band – this is IDLES in full, majestic flight. The butterfly from the chrysalis, the flower from the seed. This is a band that’s gone through the searching to find itself, the re-inventions it needed to get where it needed to be. From here, they can do anything, go anywhere. Because they know who they are – and they know they deserve this now. It’s brave, it’s complex, it’s got layers of meaning and reference, both musical and spiritual. It’s just wonderful.

And it occurred to me in the middle of the night, with such clarity that the thought woke me up:

That moment at Glastonbury where Joe starts crying on stage, at the end of Danny Nedelko, when he realises how far they’ve come, and what a beautiful, powerful thing they’ve achieved?

That’s the moment Crawler was conceived.

2 thoughts on “You have to crawl before you can fly

  1. Wow, what an ode! It would be great if IDLES could read this, I doubt they’ve ever heard/read such a complete analysis of their work. I never heard of them before but I am listening to them as I write 🙂 It’s only the first piece for now but yes “Damage… Damage… Damage” is very striking, as is the cut right after… I love how you make me discover new musical universes! And your writing is just superb. More! Shit, you whoud be writing for the Rolling Stones or something.


  2. Thanks Başak! They’ve been getting quite a lot of analysis this week, so mine’s just one more account of how the album makes people feel. I’d say listen to Crawler (twice!) and then if that one doesn’t do it for you, go back to some of the earlier stuff. Needless to say, I have a *long* list of recommendations!


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