Peter Ormerod reviews Idles at the O2 Institute in Birmingham
We need a miracle. Idles may be it.
The band are making a habit of accomplishing the impossible. Guitar bands were supposed to have lost their insurrectionist power decades ago. For a second album to chart highly these days, acts have to play the industry game. Songs about immigration, toxic masculinity and the demise of the high street are fine for earnest folkies but are hardly mainstream fare. On all these points, and more, Idles smash everything we thought we knew about music in the 2010s.
It's not just that Idles are really good. It's that they're really Good. Theirs is the power of love: not a soppy, drippy, sentimental thing, but the love that poets throughout the millennia have understood to be as strong as death, as fierce as the grave. When channelled like this, its force feels unstoppable. Idles share this love not by sewing flowers into your hair, but by bludgeoning your cranium. And to this devastating power, Idles add gallons of wit, showmanship and entertainment: they appear to live by the maxim their latest album bears as its title, Joy is an Act of Resistance.
Idles don't really do slow songs or quiet songs. They are quite rightly reluctant to be filed under any particular genre: the drums often have a post-punk or motorik intensity; the bass is full, fat and sometimes even funky; the guitars bite and churn; the vocals snarl warmly. The songs are typically brief, bright and devastatingly direct. And the lyrics carry a barbed and brutal beauty, positioned somewhere between Quentin Crisp, Morrissey and the toilet door of a Wetherspoon's: "You're not suave 'cause you watched Get Carter/You are a catalogue, plastic Sinatra/A tryhard, you should've tried harder/Me, oh me, oh my, Roy/You look like a walking thyroid/You're not a man, you're a gland/You're one big neck with sausage hands/You are a Topshop tyrant/Even your haircut's violent/You look like you're from Love Island." And so on.
They could get away with playing far less well than they do; no one would really mind if they were a bit of a shambling racket for all the brilliant noise they make. But everything they do is done with crisp and pointed precision, every beat crammed with urgency and intent. It's potent, it's powerful, it's enormous fun: at this point in their career, Idles are so perfect that you might almost want them to retire now. Only that would deny us the possibility of their taking over the world and making everything right.
This explosive mix of fierceness, conviction and wit means they can go places others may dare not. Frontman Joe Talbot complains that not enough women are down the front and implores men to let them through; opposite the merchandise stall is a stand promoting the campaign group Safe Gigs for Women. He can proclaim the glory of the NHS, proudly declare himself a feminist and hail the contribution of migrants to Britain while never seeming self-consciously 'woke'; this virtue is not signalled but enacted. At the huge, pounding heart of what they do is an honest vulnerability: the band are keen supporters of Samaritans, after which one of their songs is named and a collection for which took place after the show. Talbot makes a point of thanking the crowd for making the band feel safe.
And ah yes, the crowd, which seemed on this evidence to have a symbiotic relationship with the band. The divide between stage and pit was breached frequently, in both directions: guitarists would bustle among fans, who would assist with some singing and string-thrashing; at one point, the band were comfortably outnumbered on stage by the public. Idols not only preach unity and community; they enable them.
It all ends the only way it really can: in a cacophony that stays on just the right side of chaos. Idles are precisely the band we need and much more than we deserve. We're not supposed to look to bands for things like hope any more, but with Idles, it's hard not to. It's a gritty, grounded, grinding kind of hope, and all the truer for it. Who said the age of miracles is passed?
* Idles played:
Never Fight a Man With a Perm
Faith in the City
(with Danny Nedelko on stage)
Divide & Conquer
Cry To Me
* Idles played the O2 Institute in Birmingham on Friday October 26. See www.idlesband.com for future tour dates.