The 1975 Are Far Too Ambitious on Notes on A Conditional Form
Following their critical breakthrough A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, Matt Healy & co. return with exhausting chaosMusic Reviews The 1975
The 1975 are one of the most frustrating and exceptional bands of our time. At the beginning of the decade, the Manchester quartet’s slick, indie-pop-funk sound led them to international stardom. Firmly rooted in the stylish, moody Tumblrcore aesthetic (see artists like Lana Del Rey, Twenty One Pilots and Arctic Monkeys), they became a phenomenon among music-obsessed teens, but perhaps most surprisingly, they then became critical darlings, too. With 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, they released some of their best songs to date (including some all-time-great pop moments of the decade) and took substantial risks—dabbling in jazz and Soundcloud rap and proclaiming zeitgeisty lines like “Modernity has failed us!”
Frontman Matty Healy has become one of the most visible figures in modern music, and he has a penchant for putting a foot in his mouth (and then apologizing). He’s in a unique position of being the leader of one of the most online bands of our time (often utilizing dramatic social media blackouts to tease their new music), with one of the most devoted fan bases in the world, so, understandably, his relationship to fame is complicated. Healy often addresses this in his music, letting us know he’s aware of his strange situation, but then the next day, he’ll say something so ridiculously big-headed as if he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth rather than doing some rock star bit. The title of the band’s second album—I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it—made listeners question their levels of pretentiousness and irony, but a song from the record, “Love Me” tried to argue that it’s more the latter. They also play into cliches, and it’s hard to tell whether they’re in on the joke (From 2016’s “She’s American”: “If she likes it ‘cause we just don’t eat / And we’re so intelligent, she’s American / If she says I’ve got to fix my teeth / Then she’s so American”). In short, The 1975 are perplexing for good reasons and bad.
After their critical breakthrough A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, The 1975 promised a quick follow-up. The album’s release date was repeatedly delayed, and the initial title that was floated—Music for Cars—turned into the name of the band’s current “era,” which includes their 2018 LP and their subsequent 2020 full-length. Finally, Notes On A Conditional Form was confirmed as their new album title, and the first taste of music came last July (which meant the album cycle lasted nearly a year and contained a whopping eight singles—not a great look) with their ceremonious band title track. The song is a spoken-word piece read and co-written by climate activist Greta Thunberg, who calmly delivers a cataclysmic warning about the consequences of inaction on environmental issues.
While it’s a stirring speech that makes an unwavering case for radical change, it begs the question: What artistic purpose does this serve on a 1975 album? Maybe artistic purpose goes out the window when it comes to an urgent issue like this, but, still, there’s a vague aftertaste of cushy virtue signalling, and it’s a taste that’s familiar when listening to The 1975. Thankfully, they’re smart enough to place “People”—easily their most fiery song to date—directly after it. It’s possibly their biggest musical plot twist, fusing Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson’s industrial rock ferocity with explosive indie-punk à la Dirty Hit labelmates King Nun. While it’s a nice transition from the rebellious opening track, it’s unclear what exactly we’re supposed to “Wake up!” to. Healy tells his generation, “We are appalling and we need to stop just watching shit in bed,” but later says, “Fuck it!” and “I don’t like going outside so bring me everything here.” The album is, for a lack of better phrasing, a series of “self-inquiries” for Healy and his generation at large, but his only discovery seems to be that he has a lot of feelings—which is, in itself, relatable, but not enlightening for an album that opens with such a meteoric call to arms.
On “Frail State of Mind,” one of the record’s redeeming songs, Healy embraces hyper-calming, imaginative dance-pop, a Blood Orange-esque vocal delivery and the sinking feeling of being anti-social for mental health’s sake. The track is sandwiched between two of many interludes (which is nothing new for the band), and these string-laden, ambient passages attempt to convince you that what you’re listening to afterwards is far more profound than what you’re actually hearing—but often, it’s not.
“The Birthday Party” is another curveball. It’s a banjo and piano-based emo song with that infamous Pinegrove lyric (“They were gonna go to the Pinegrove show / But they didn’t know about all the weird stuff so they just left it”). The line, which alludes to Pinegrove frontman Evan Stephens Hall’s alleged sexual coercion, doesn’t actually take any stance on the controversial, grey-area #MeToo matter, but instead just namedrops the band, as if to cynically let listeners know, “Hey, we see the same stuff on Twitter as you!”
“Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” a title which falls right in with the cringey, teenage bedroom collage quality of this band, is a particularly touching highlight. Phoebe Bridgers lends vocals to this understated, desire-filled folk moment that discusses non-heterosexual attraction. Staying on this rootsy detour, Healy and co. go full-on country with “Roadkill,” a glimpse into the band’s life on the road. As a male rock frontman in 2020 (especially one with many young female fans), Healy should know better than to drop a line about his male anatomy (“I feel up my tucked up erection”), but at least we get other details of the abnormal life of a touring musician (“I know this is how I get paid but it’s not really how I wanna get laid”).
“Me & You Together Song” pivots to ’90s dream pop, and though its guitar lines are stereotypical, it’s still pleasantly sweet with Healy delivering one of his best vocal performances. Continuing to shape-shift, “Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied” does little but recall flickers of superior A Brief Inquiry… tracks like the distorted hip-hop of “I Like America & America Likes Me” and the gospel vocals of “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You).”
Another sharp turn is “Shiny Collarbone,” which sounds nothing like The 1975 as vocals come from Jamaican dancehall musician Cutty Ranks, but its house-music-meets dance-pop pulse is positively enveloping. All of these songs lead to the question: Where is The 1975 in all of this? Well, as it turns out, the most (and only) quintessentially 1975 track of the bunch, “If You’re Too Shy Let Me Know,” is also the album’s best track. Much like 2018’s “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME,” its hi-fi indie-pop is effortlessly catchy, and you could play it endlessly without it tiring. This sheds a light on the weaknesses of Notes…. With EDM-tinted festival tunes (“What Should I Say”), acoustic songs (“Guys”), piano ballads (“Don’t Worry”) and classical interludes, it feels like they’re trying to outgrow themselves too quickly. They’re not just attempting to reinvent the pop music wheel, but every other wheel as well.
It’s a bloated album with few connecting threads. Healy feels sad, confused, angry, horny, happy, sentimental, lonely, disconnected and thankful, but what is the listener supposed to make of all this meandering? Chaos is a good foil for chaos if it’s the exhilarating kind, but what we’re presented with is an exhausting chaos. One could argue it’s a playlist album for a playlist world, but this doesn’t negate the fact that it’s an overwhelming, inconsistent work, and it lacks obvious moods or settings that would lend itself to front-to-back listening.
The 1975 are a postmodern band, and they told us so on songs like “Sincerity is Scary” (“You try and mask your pain in the most postmodern way”). They’re a cultural and social media behemoth, and Healy is constantly battling with what it means to “be and feel seen,” but Notes On a Conditional Form seems more preoccupied with perception and the potential to legacy-build than it does with lasting songs. It’s an album that would never have been made without the cameras rolling or thumbs tweeting. Where A Brief Inquiry… excelled due to its exceptional pop songwriting and well-calculated sonic departures, Notes… is far too ambitious and self-aware (“Will I live and die in a band?”) for its own good. As they say, once you realize you’re dreaming, it’s all over.
Lizzie Manno is an assistant music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno