I know IDLES doesn’t want me to call them a punk band, so I won’t. I’ll just say they have a punk energy and a punk ethos. They remind me of the that punk feeling that I love – and often miss – more than any band going today, save for perhaps Jeff Rosenstock. I will admit, I was late to the party on 2018’s Joy as an Act of Resistance. I had heard some of it, but it wasn’t until last year that I listened to it in its entirety. That was a mistake, because it was a top 10 album of 2018 in hindsight. My bad, guys! They absolutely rip, and the lyrics pull no punches and take no prisoners on their first couple of albums. IDLES can be funny, but they also get overtly political in that punk way that they don’t want me referencing. Sometimes it seems like they are being political and making message songs as a bit. The British band is hard to read. I feel like that keeps me at a distant from the music a bit. However, there’s more holding me at arm’s length about their new 2020 album Ultra Mono.
The issues started with the opening single “Mr. Motivator,” which is clunky lyrically but also maybe is supposed to be? After rifling off some overly elaborate similes and metaphors Talbot seems to sneer, “How you like them clichés?” Then, the chorus seems sincere. Like I said, this band can be obtuse, and I feel like they enjoy it that way.
The guitar work on Ultra Mono rules. The songs are still propulsive and intense and that’s great. I feel like IDLES has less to say on this album, though. That, or I like what they have to say less. The lyrics don’t grab me as much. The funny bits aren’t as funny. I rolled my eyes a few times, I must admit. This is an album that might be served best by me listed to it while I’m distracted by something else. That way, the guitars can wash over me, Joe Talbot’s yowling vocals can ring through my ears without the lyrics really landing. That’s not a bad thing, but it also definitely doesn’t put Ultra Mono on the level of Joy as an Act of Resistance, which I am happy to throw on and listen to in its entirety on a walk. I don’t want to call Ultra Mono a disappointment, because I still enjoyed it by and large. On the other hand, I was excited for this album, and I was definitely not feeling excited after I finished it. I don’t know how many songs will end up in my regular rotation. It’s weird to say that an album would be better if it was instrumentals, at least for me. And yet, that’s what I felt after listening to Ultra Mono. I guess I didn’t like them clichés.