IDLES’ Crawler: an intriguing musical effort at odds with its own imagery

Crawler is the fourth full album by rock quintet IDLES from Bristol, England. The band formed in 2011 and released a series of EPs before their full-length debut in 2016.

IDLES’ music falls loosely into the “post-punk” subgenre due to its generally aggressive and raw approach to standard rock song structure, but also because it draws on “non-rock” elements. “such as industrial music, electronic dance music and even hip-hop to some extent.

Crawler (inactive)

Led by vocalist Joe Talbot, the band includes guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, bassist Adam Devonshire and drummer Jon Beavis. Their first two albums, Brutalism (2017) and Joy as an act of resistance (2018), brought them notoriety, particularly in the UK where this latest album was nominated for a Mercury Prize.

The group developed a devoted following in the United States and Europe due to their energetic and unpredictable concerts. IDLES often blurs the line between stage and audience while performing, consciously creating a kind of performative chaos meant to shake the moving audience. In interviews, Talbot noted that the decision to form the band was due in part to the members’ disgust with the boredom and indifference perceived by many bands during the first decade of the 2000s.

At their best, IDLES are capable of truly invigorating music. The best example is the 2018 song “Danny Nedelko”, which is a defiant and upbeat defense of immigrants. The song was released in opposition to the chauvinism of the Brexit campaign. Full of life and human feeling, the song is both engaging and universal.

At Crawlerproduced by hip-hop producer Kenny Beats (Kenneth Blume), the album is a step forward for the band musically, but also a step backward, or at least sideways, thematically.

Many of the songs on the album are musically inventive and propelled by a high level of skill and confidence. Beavis and Devonshire’s rhythm section stand out. The band is at its best in rhythmic, sonically cascading songs, like the primal drumming “The Wheel” or the furnace-blast of “Crawl!”, where the powerful, danceable beats envelop the listener.

Guitarists Bowen and Kiernan often provide moody, jarring contrasts to tight grooves, and sometimes create an interesting tension that heightens the dramatic effect. Some songs like the down-tempo “When the Lights Come On” or the sinister opening track “MTT 420 RR” are punctuated by the dark precision of the guitars. The foreboding of riffs and chord changes brings the listener closer and never fully releases the tension.

Very little feels twisty or boring, at least in the quintet’s playing. A keen sense of musical purpose is at work here, often aided by Talbot’s urgent vocals.

In its lyrics and themes, however, the album ultimately fails. The three previous IDLES albums addressed immigration, poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia. Concern for these issues was often presented in a confrontational or self-confessional form. As noted earlier, these themes are sometimes actually picked up.

But while these questions are mostly worth exploring musically, it’s worth noting that they’re generally handled by the band in a mundane “left-wing” manner characteristic of upper-middle-class academic strata. Phrases like “toxic masculinity”, “white privilege”, “cultural appropriation” and even “classism” appear here and there on the previous three albums, but not so often on Crawler. The term “classism” in particular – frequently used on other IDLES albums – treats social class as just one more “identity”, not the axis around which society revolves.

IDLES’ too frequent reliance on these designs has been a weakness, often weighing in on songs that have musical value. In his fondness for this jargon, coupled with an overreliance on vulgarity at times, Talbot seems to take the line of least resistance.

Additionally, Talbot often refers to his own personal and psychological challenges. Up to a point, of course, this is completely legitimate. At Crawler, however, this type of theme and imagery tends to dominate. The songs primarily explore the singer’s difficult childhood and early adulthood. Personal and family struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, and the troubles associated with these crises, hang like a cloud over most of the album.

Halfway through, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the different stories of personal misery. It’s also material that has appeared in various ways on their previous records, and at this point it looks somewhat worn.

Imagery on songs such as “MTT 420 RR”, “The Wheel” and “Car Crash” involve “wreckage” metaphors about life spiraling out of control. The tracks “Stockholm Syndrome” and “The Beachland Ballroom” also continue the “tailspin” imagery. Songs like “Crawl!” function as a recovery narrative about trying to get off the ground after hitting rock bottom. A musically upbeat song like “King Snake” encourages a kind of Buddhist resignation amid the chaos.

Only one track seems to contradict these themes, the dance floor instruction “The New Sensation”. Talbot somewhat caustically sings different dances that the audience should try. In an interview, Talbot said it was meant to poke fun at Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s austerity budget, in which funding for the arts was cut, as well as Sunak’s comments that artists should just give up. and change careers.

The album ends with a track called “The End”. It is perhaps the only generally upbeat song on the album, in terms of thematic outlook. Grand in its musical structure, the song’s ever-growing discord reaches a chorus where Talbot breathes “Despite everything, life is beautiful!”

Idles, 2017 (Photo credit–Alexander Kellner)

In interviews, Talbot has revealed that he was inspired by the line of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in his famous “Testament” of February 1940. This is an interesting note on which to conclude.

Talbot explained: “Before his assassination, Trotsky knew that Stalin’s men were coming to kill him. He knew he was going to die. What did he do? After observing his wife in the garden, he wrote in his diary: “Despite everything, life is beautiful. A week later, he receives an ice pick in the head. He was just happy to sit in his garden watching the person he loved the most doing what she loved. I think it’s a beautiful thing… I’m Trotsky.

It is promising that Talbot was inspired by Trotsky’s comment and situation. At the same time, it should come as no surprise that the musician’s interpretation of Trotsky’s commentary is one-sided, to the point of missing much of the gist. Talbot seems to suggest that the exiled revolutionary was writing out of resignation as to his individual fate.

The complete passage from Trotsky dispels such a notion entirely: “For forty-three years of my conscious life I remained a revolutionary; for forty-two of them I fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to start all over again, of course, I would try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I will die proletarian revolutionary, Marxist, dialectical materialist and, therefore, irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of humanity is no less ardent, even firmer today, than it was when I was young.

“Natacha has just approached the courtyard window and opened it wider so that the air could enter my room more freely. I can see the strip of bright green grass below the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is Beautiful. May future generations purify it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.

Trotsky’s optimism and his understanding of the beauty and possibilities of life were guided by a deep understanding of historical and social process. He fought with all his might and ability to help elevate the understanding of the working class of its world historical tasks. He considered social and cultural issues, as well as his personal destiny, from the point of view of the objective development of the social revolution. As he once explained, “it is necessary to find in reality itself the strength to overcome its reactionary and barbaric traits”.

IDLES would do well to delve deeper into this path, especially to study the history of social and psychological issues that clearly and legitimately concern them. Musical talent is certainly in the spotlight in Crawlerbut the conceptions with which they operate must evolve for them to really progress.