Late one night from the driverâ€™s seat of his car, IDLES frontman Joe Talbot watched a motorcyclist race past him on the highway at nearly 130 miles an hour. The rider was inches away from crashing into Talbotâ€™s car. In that singular moment, with the fragility of life and death so blatantly on display, Talbot began to reflect on his own trajectory and chronicle the formative moments therein, both literally and metaphorically.
â€œIâ€™ve been a car crash.â€ he says. â€œBeing an addict is part and parcel of who I was for years and years. Watching that motorcyclist felt like the start of a new story â€” reflecting on addiction in a forgiving, empathetic and sympathetic way. Allowing yourself the room to breathe and forgive, but also taking responsibility for your actions.â€
These forks in the proverbial road of life, and the consequences of choosing which way to turn, form the narrative backbone of â€œCRAWLER,â€ the fourth IDLES album in as many years and the follow-up to 2020â€™s â€œUltra Mono,â€ the U.K. bandâ€™s first No. 1 album. If â€œUltra Monoâ€ was, in the words of guitarist Mark Bowen, â€œkind of like a caricature of our identity that helped us see it for all its flaws,â€ â€œCRAWLERâ€ is an album of reflection and healing amid a worldwide pandemic that stretched the planetâ€™s collective mental and physical health to the breaking point.
Talbot says, â€œWe want people whoâ€™ve gone through trauma, heartbreak, and loss to feel like theyâ€™re not alone. This album shows the ugly side of where those things come from, but also how it is possible to reclaim joy from those experiences.â€ He adds, â€œBefore his assassination, Trotsky knew that Stalinâ€™s men were coming over to kill him. He knew he was going to die. What did he do? After watching his wife out in the garden, he wrote in his diary, â€˜in spite of it all, life is beautiful.â€™ A week later, he gets an icepick in the head. He was just happy to sit in his garden watching the person he loved most do what she loved. I think thatâ€™s a beautiful thing.â€
For Talbot, â€œâ€˜CRAWLERâ€™ is like the character of me in the dark warmth of my addiction â€” a crawler, a night crawler, someone on their knees, someone praying, someone surviving. The grit of it. The weight of the world on you. All of those things is a â€˜crawler.â€™â€
Indeed, on â€œCRAWLER,â€ those stories run the gamut from literal car crashes (the dark, tense opener â€œMTT 420 RR,â€ â€œCar Crashâ€) and dancing with random Spanish men in futile late-night attempts to keep the party going at the club (â€œWhen the Lights Come Onâ€), to aspirational tales of working hard, setting goals and seeing them through to fruition, no matter how insurmountable they may seem (â€œCrawl!,â€ â€œThe Beachland Ballroom,â€ an honest-to-goodness soul song featuring a gorgeous, gripping vocal performance from Talbot).
Says Talbot, â€œThis whole album, I tried to be more of a storyteller than Iâ€™ve ever been before, and more poetic, which I think is more honest, in an ironic way, than trying to be as blunt and down the line as possible.â€ Bowen says this newly varied palette gives the album the feeling of a true shared journey: â€œI thought it was important to include a lot of the songs that deal directly with trauma and the immediate reactive responses to trauma in the first half. Then, you have the more head-on stuff later â€” the realization and the dealing with it.â€
IDLES albums have always been anchored by these overarching themes and concepts. But the ability of the band (which also includes guitarist Lee Kiernan, drummer Jon Beavis and bassist Adam Devonshire) to juxtapose beauty and rage with humor and drama has never felt more satisfying than on â€œCRAWLER.â€ To hear Talbot command the listener to â€œshake your tiny tushyâ€ on â€œThe New Sensation,â€ compare a mangled motorcyclist to a â€œjelly rollâ€ dessert on â€œMTT 420 RRâ€ or appropriate text messages from his former drug dealer to be screamed as lyrics on â€œWizzâ€ is almost like hearing IDLES for the first time all over again.
â€œOne of the big things about writing this album was that we wanted to experiment and progress and evolve in our songwriting,â€ says Bowen. â€œEvery time we did so, we had to think, what would we do? A really important aspect of our identity as a band is humor, and not taking ourselves too seriously. Obviously, we deal with quite serious subject matter, but it is often done with a tongue firmly placed in cheek.â€
These stories are vividly brought to life through IDLESâ€™ most soul-stirring music to date, recorded under the pandemic-era supervision of producer Kenny Beats (Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs), there are, of course, numerous moments that will inspire absolute mayhem in a packed concert venue come fall 2021, like the warped glam rock of â€œThe Wheel,â€ the 30-second grindcore slap to the head of â€œWizzâ€ and the unhinged, pulverizing bass-and-drum groove of â€œThe New Sensation.â€ But there are also fresh textures and experiments that push IDLES into thrilling new territory, like the alternate universe marching band anthem â€œStockholm Syndromeâ€ and â€œProgress,â€ a â€œmantra of realizationâ€ that soothes both body and mind in a way few IDLES songs ever have before.
Says Bowen, who co-produced the record alongside Beats, â€œKenny was constantly asking questions: â€˜Whatâ€™s a crawler?â€™ â€˜Why are you doing this here?â€™ He would facilitate things through those questions, because youâ€™d kind of get put on the spot, and youâ€™d have to work things out to answer them. The way Kenny and I talk about music is very much from a hip-hop or electronic point of view. Drums are primary. The main thing thatâ€™s got to happen is that itâ€™s got to slam and pull you along. Oftentimes, I second-guess the more insular, esoteric songs. Kenny would say, â€˜Why are we recording this again? Letâ€™s just use the demo. The demo has the feeling. You donâ€™t need anything else here.â€™â€
â€œI donâ€™t really see us as a â€˜rock bandâ€™ and working with Kenny freed us of the idea of genre,â€ Talbot enthuses. â€œOn this album, our dissolution of ego was helped by Kennyâ€™s humble nature and willingness to learn. He has boundless fucking passion for making the best song possible. Not the best â€˜rockâ€™ song â€” the best song possible, whatever song weâ€™re working on that day. Thatâ€™s something weâ€™ve always wanted.â€
He continues, â€œIt was writing selfishly that helped make it possible. Reflecting. Telling my own story. Not trying to tell everyone elseâ€™s story. Not trying to fix the world â€” just talking about how I am fixing mine.â€