UK punk outfit, Idles, made a huge impression last year when they dropped their debut album, Brutalism. Like the album’s title suggested, it could be taken entirely at face value; the record was a livid commentary on the state of British society, full of sharp edges (both lyrical and instrumental) and no-holds-barred accusations. The band’s blaring middle-finger, proudly thrust in the face of society and establishment politics, was a gesture that clearly resonated with a lot of people, garnering the band a significant following, and earning near-universal critical acclaim for Brutalism – something Idles seem not to be bothered about in the slightest, in keeping with their punk aesthetic.
A lesser band – one more concerned with maintaining their image – might have returned a year later with an album that doubled down on the anger of the first, especially considering that in the current political climate, anger sells. Idles however, in keeping with the idea that art doesn’t cause, but rather reflects social change, have returned with Joy as an Act of Resistance – an album that celebrates vulnerability and difference, and revels in the fact that despite all of the injustice and vitriol, we’re still here to kick up a fuss.
Despite the overall angrily joyous voice of the record, Joy as an Act of Resistance begins in quite a dour place. The opening track, ‘Colossus’, is a harmonically vague, frenzied shout into the void. Echoing, hollow, violent drums and dissonant power chords accompany terrified yelling from vocalist Joe Talbot about the pressures from the world around us to be a certain way, particularly when it comes to masculinity.
“I am my father’s son
His shadow weighs a tonne”
The track then gives way to a more celebratory, tonal conclusion, setting up the album’s overall thematic direction.
Joy as an Act of Resistance is a much less combative album than its predecessor. The songs are less about unveiling, and railing against social injustices, but are far more concerned with embracing the things that society deems to be lesser. ‘I’m Scum’ is a prime example of this, with its jaunty bassline and almost unsettlingly jubilant group vocal line which is presented almost like a football chant. The song proudly reclaims the word “scum”, associating it as the opposite of all of the unimportant, superficial things that are valued by those who use the term. Talbot takes this opportunity to lampoon the inflated concern over who will play the next James Bond, who he refers to as “another murderous toff”.
One theme that recurs pretty consistently across the whole record is that of toxic masculinity, and the band’s attempt to combat that by embracing vulnerability. The theme is approached in a number of ways, like the satirically aggressive ‘Love Song’ on which Talbot proclaims:
“I f***ing love you
I really love you
Look at the card I bought
It says, “I love you”.”
On ‘Samaritans’ however, as the lyrics suggest, “the mask slips”. It is perhaps to be expected that Idles could not consistently maintain their joyful façade across the entire record. In a moment in history as dark and twisted as the one in which we currently find ourselves, it is practically impossible to stay upbeat and hopeful all the time, and ‘Samaritans’ is the moment on Joy as an Act of Resistance where Talbot begins to reveal the cracks in his positivity. The song deals with the pressure on men to push past their vulnerabilities and “grow some balls”. There is no positivity here, which is rather jarring considering the message of the record, but despite the thematic inconsistency caused by this track’s display of dejection, ‘Samaritans’ is incredibly moving. The song’s place in the middle of the tracklist is the moment of vulnerability that society demands we don’t allow ourselves.
Following that moment of resignation, the band rebuilds its celebratory energy with songs like ‘Television’ and ‘Great’ which encourage us to embrace ourselves and to make the most of the situations in which we find ourselves. The cognitive dissonance of hearing positive affirmations from one of the most aesthetically aggressive bands around is a huge part of this record’s charm, but it doesn’t always have the clearest effect on the biting antagonism that has historically fuelled this kind of music. There is a combativeness to the positivity on the later tracks in the sense that they push so hard to lift one’s spirits after the painful hopelessness of ‘Samaritans’.
The tonal inconsistency employed by Idles on Joy as an Act of Resistance adds a sense of thematic sophistication to their sophomore album that was missing from the relentless fury of Brutalism. This makes for a much more esoteric listen; the record’s message is not always as easy to unpack, and the tracks don’t thread together effortlessly. Idles have crafted a follow up to their debut that is just as cathartic, but it demands more work from the listener to access that catharsis. In order to get the most from the album’s highs, you have to really embrace its lows.