It’s hard to have a conversation about British rock music without Idles’ name coming up these days. 2018’s exhilarating Joy As An Act of Resistance propelled the Bristol five-piece from relative obscurity to Mercury Prize nominees heralded by many as saviours of UK punk. Their follow-up, 2020’s Ultra Mono, reached Number 1 in the charts but lacked the sparkle of its predecessor, its in-your-face lyrical mantras edging towards the heavy-handed. Frontman Joe Talbot has since admitted that he feels the album “translated badly” in the absence of live music last year.
So, you’d be forgiven for approaching the band’s fourth full-length effort – released so soon in the wake of Ultra Mono – with some trepidation. Thankfully, Crawler finds Idles rejuvenated, treading compelling new ground and embracing a complex range of musical influences that might surprise some fans.
Crawler centres predominantly around Talbot’s long struggle with substance abuse, explored with candour on the strikingly intimate trip hop-overtoned opener MTT 420 RR. “I can feel my spinal cord rip high,” he growls, transporting us deep into the wreckage of the near-fatal car accident that dramatically affected his life.
It’s an event that’s revisited throughout the record, most notably in the savage, slow-building Car Crash, an industrial-leaning showstopper with the noise-laden intensity of juggernauts like Death Grips and Rage Against the Machine. Guitarist and co-producer Mark Bowen says he wanted the track to sound “as violent as possible” to reflect the brutality of the incident, and the results are gut-wrenchingly powerful.
While Idles have always been famous for writing songs that hit you like a brick in the face, there’s welcome variation here – bold social commentary sits alongside quiet self-reflection, and full-throttle rock belters (The Wheel) transition into half-spoken post-punk doomscapes (When the Lights Come On).
Indeed, this album sees Talbot deliver his most confident vocal performance to date. Blues-inspired lead single The Beachland Ballroom is a triumphant example – dubbed “the most important song on the album” by Idles themselves, Talbot swaps his distinctive punk snarl for a haunting, soulful croon, demonstrating an impressive range few would have thought possible from the band’s previous outputs, his anguished cries of “damage” in the track’s closing moments showcasing a new emotional depth.
For those missing the quintet’s trademark chant-along political tirades (think Danny Nedelko or Mr Motivator), The New Sensation should do the job nicely: self-described as a reaction to Rishi Sunak’s suggestion that professional musicians struggling during the pandemic “should retrain”, it’s a glorious, rage-fuelled foot-stomper that harks back to the more upbeat moments of Idles’ back catalogue.
But the most astonishing moment on Crawler comes in the form of Progress, a blissful piece of electronica about hope and realisation that’s full of interweaving voices and soothes in a way no song from this band has come close to before. Perhaps most brilliantly of all, it’s immediately followed by a pummelling 30-second grindcore interlude called Wizz – a reminder that Idles are here to subvert your expectations.
The dark, introspective nature of Idles’ latest release may well disappoint those who love the band for their rabble-rousing, tongue-in-cheek headbangers. But for those who’ve been waiting some time for the beloved Bristolians to take a left turn with their sound, Crawler is an absolute thrill.