'Crawler' Is the Sound of IDLES Running on Empty

'Crawler' Is the Sound of IDLES Running on Empty
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Well, they've done it. Against all odds, IDLES have become… boring. What an unlikely feat! For a group of rowdy British punks who rose to prominence due to their rambunctiousness and politically targeted hooliganism — and whose most highly regarded album is earnestly titled Joy as an Act of Resistance — it seems impossible that they could make music that's listless, lethargic and half-hearted. Yet here we are.

IDLES' fourth album Crawler is a sludgy, murky mess; a sink full of dirty dishwater in which the band is perpetually circling the drain. On opener "MTT 420 RR," it initially seems like they're building suspense; there are sparse guitars, ominous synths, and singer Joe Talbot holds his voice to a breathy croak, his syllables slithering in the empty spaces. But more than five minutes go by without that suspense amounting to anything. Eventually Talbot asks, "Are you ready for the storm?" And you've just got to wonder… what storm, exactly?

Whatever momentum the band has, they tend to squander it. On the post-punk shuffle of "When the Lights Come On" and "The New Sensation," they aim for anthemic but meander too aimlessly to persuade anyone to sing along. "Stockholm Syndrome" is basically allergic to melody and rhythm. "Crawl!" is an overlong attempt at old-school punk, a style they already did much better on their 2020 effort Ultra Mono. "Car Crash" is a slog of industrial noise that shows only a loose grasp of what qualifies as a song. "Progress" sounds like an info dump of A. G. Cook's unused ideas; the harsh squawking of saxophones is the only respite from the monotony of "Meds"; and "Wizz" is 30 seconds of blast beats, arhythmic hacking, and the sound of Talbot hollering in frustration as he tries to clear a stubborn gob of phlegm from his throat. They barely even muster the energy to end it with a bang. "The End" is there, and then it just… ends.

Even the album's strongest tracks feel like they're only 70% loaded, at best. With a soulful swing and the ring of a Hammond B3 organ, "The Beachland Ballroom" is like a punk take on Otis Redding. It's the record's most interesting song, and the most sensibly composed. Meanwhile, "The Wheel" takes the ol' shimmy 'n' shake of Chuck Berry-style rock 'n' roll and crosses it with Sunn O)))-style drone metal with downtuned guitars and guttural growls. These songs manage to succeed in spite of themselves, and only just barely.

One of the most notorious elements of IDLES' music has been Talbot's political stumping. He spent the band's first three albums snarling away at fascism, white supremacy, the patriarchy, the wealthy class and all manner of inequitably designed socioeconomic systems. Here, it's a lot harder to make out much of a clear message amid the madness. Even when Talbot calls out, "Can I get a hallelujah?" it isn't enthusiastic enough to be genuine, nor is it disinterested enough to be sarcastic. It just sounds like he's reading words on a page.

At 14 tracks and 47 minutes, Crawler is IDLES' longest album — and it really feels like it. It's actually pretty astonishing how little they manage to do in these songs. There are plenty of good ideas and somewhat convincing moments, but they're constantly letting the air out of their own tires. Throughout, there's this yawning gap where you'd normally find that palpable sense of an artist's love for their art. Crawler feels sad and empty… dispassionate and incomplete.

So what's to blame? Is it the result of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders that sapped the energy and vitality from so many people? Is it the influence of producer Kenny Beats, whose style is perhaps better suited for the likes of Vince Staples, Denzel Curry and Freddie Gibbs? Did IDLES rush to follow up their last album and push a collection of half-cooked ideas out the door too quickly? However you try to explain it, it simply sounds like a band that's running out of gas. At least for now. (Partisan)