When it comes to writing quality music, context isn’t always everything. A tragic death of a loved one in the artist’s life, or a harrowing event that reshapes their existence, does not by itself good music make. Not every personal hardship breeds art at the level of YOB, Mount Eerie, or Bell Witch, and that’s okay. Not all experience is perfectly translatable into art, nor should we expect it to be. But when grief, anger, and the deepest human responses to difficulty combine effectively with artistic vision and talent, the results can be utterly staggering. Following the death of lead barker Joe Talbot’s newborn daughter, Bristol punk stalwarts IDLES crafted an album about persistence in the face of adversity both personal and societal. Joy as an Act of Resistance is a wild, cathartic, intensely focused, and deeply personal statement of intent regarding the state of mankind and the communities we occupy. It’s as good a record as fans of punk music could hope for.
Following up a record as wildly successful as 2017’s Brutalism would be a tall task for any band, but especially so for one whose sound is as prototypically “lightning-in-a-bottle” as IDLES’ is. It’s pretty easy to see the sounds the band captured on their debut growing stale very quickly, but the music on their sophomore record does everything but bore. Opener “Colossus” leads off the record with a forceful kick in the teeth, detailing the wasting away of a human addled by their own self-destructive, cyclical tendencies. Those who assumed the “Joy” found in the title would be light and cheap will be rudely awakened by Joy as an Act of Resistance, which tears open personal and cultural wounds with reckless abandon. Homophobia (also humorously slammed in the track), xenophobia (“Danny Nedelko”), political hatred (“I’m Scum”), media-influenced self-image (“Television”), religious intolerance (“Great”), and Brexit are all thoroughly lacerated by Talbot’s ceaseless humor and bile, which is sharper here than ever. The music doesn’t slack off in the slightest under the weight of Talbot’s verbosity, either. The guitar and rhythm sections here pulse and flow with an animal energy that bolsters Talbot’s pointed lyricism with a hefty amount of clever musicianship and capable performances. On almost every level, there’s little to complain about here.
A macroscopic view on such overarching societal woes also doesn’t diminish Talbot’s introspective vulnerability. “June”, a dark and loving lullaby to Talbot’s deceased newborn daughter, is as heartbreaking a track as your ears will endure this year, revealing the utterly broken heart of a grieving father. Such open statements of deeply felt emotion can often be somewhat alienating, but from Talbot’s mouth and pen they feel like a communal embrace; a late-night conversation with close friends about the utter isolation of grief. Closer “Rottweiler” takes this personal touch and cranks it to eleven, with Talbot yelling “keep going / keep fucking going” with the zeal of a man possessed. It’s a beautiful amalgamation of the untouchably personal and deeply communal, the ugly and the beautiful, and a testament to the incredible talent Talbot possesses as a songwriter.
And that seems to be the crux of Joy As An Act of Resistance. Pain exists in nearly every facet of known life. It’s part of the very fabric of our physical and spiritual existence. But there’s love, and friendship, to be found in suffering and grief. IDLES mine this truth extensively throughout their sophomore outing, creating, as a result, one of the most joyous and exceptional records of the year. It’s a revelatory work of art, filled to the brim with good ideas, executed to near perfection. It’s also a reflection of the goodness that exists in life despite its constant pain, and a call for community in an increasingly divided, sectarian world. It’s the art we need.
Joy as an Act of Resistance is available for purchase and streaming now through Partisan Records.