There’s a scene in 30 Rock where Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) is trying to write a Grammy-cinching song, combining the world’s most popular genres into one headache of a song. Stretch that song into an album and you have The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. There is so much good here, but there’s also just so. much.
“Be My Mistake” is the album’s standout. Sandwiched between “Love If We Made It” and “Sincerity is Scary,” it’s a gorgeous little track, stripped of the bubble-wrap pop sensibilities and the buttery-slick robot vocals. It’s lonely and it’s heartbreaking and it’s beautiful¸ a little gem in a wasteland of what sounds like sneaker commercials (“I Like America America Likes Me”), songs in wait of a Pixar-knockoff dance party sequence (“TooTimeTooTimeTooTime”) and one very weird track that Jonathan Colton must have traded for some magic beans (“The Man Who Married a Robot”)
And when it’s over, we’re right back to that 2018 pop sound, too cluttered to dance too, too frantic to just enjoy. “Sincerity is Scary,” layers on jazz horns and slick electric piano and warp effects and R&B vocals in a stupefying mess. It’s the accidental thesis of the album—they possess the musical talent and the songwriting skills, but they’re trying to do too much. They’re trying to be every genre instead of just focusing on a handful that they’re good at. This also happens on “How To Draw / Petrichor” and “The 1975,” where the interjections of lyrics feel like opening a hot oven, rather than a natural progression of warmth. It’s pieces from 10 different puzzle all dumped out on the table and no way to put them together into something that makes sense.
But where they soar, they sore, and dance pop is absolutely one of their strengths. “Give Yourself a Try” has a fabulous ball of a beat that bounces between your ears, with Matty Healy’s nasally vocals painting an melancholic picture of a misspent adulthood reminiscent of MGMT’s “Time To Pretend.” And “TooTimeTooTimeTooTime” is hypnotic enough to lure even the shyest wallflower out onto the dance floor. It’s a delightful confection, a niche of nervous emotions that you didn’t even know existed in that exact cocktail until the rhythm shakes it all up for you. It’s intoxicating and demands multiple listens, even if the false start is an unnecessary frustrating.
“I Couldn’t Be More In Love” tries to bring things back around to the simple and it works really well, perfectly replicating a 1980s smooth jam. You could tell me this was a Lionel Ritchie B-side and I would believe you, at least until the AutoTune kicks in the chorus. It doesn’t try to throw in K-Pop and zoo animals. Sincerity is scary, but it’s also worth the fear. Closing out the album with a slow bummer, “I Always Wanna Die Sometimes” stretches back into the overproduced territory, with a heavy electronic sound creating a disparaging barrier between the listener and the singer, but, for the most part, manages to find the balance that much of the album strives for and misses.
For good or for ill, The 1975 have mastered the 2018 sound—a hyper-sweet confectionary of computer rhythms and dance beats and electro-breath echoes that is the hallmark of far too many albums. But underneath the puffy synthetics, they’ve also proven themselves capable of real rawness, an album for the good times as well as the tough.