On A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
It ain’t “brief.” The 1975’s third album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships stops short of an hour. No real “inquiries” either — hyperaware ADHD-romantic Matty Healy prefers foregone conclusions.
But “online relationships” is a brilliant feint*, because this boy band is not singing about love ever. It’s about his/the band’s/our relationship with the Internet, which doubles as their biggest fan. (It’s also the BFF of someone named “SnowflakeSmasher86,” more on that later.)
(*The 1975’s trick is to decorate themselves with alleged excess so when we actually play the songs we admire their restraint.)
Healy didn’t sing about the internet on his band’s most modestly titled album by far, 2013’s The 1975. On 2016’s I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, he entered his first lyric referencing “friends online” into the canon on the wonderfully INXS-y single “Love Me” alone. But the new album brings the web into “Give Yourself a Try,” “How to Draw / Petrichor,” “Love It If We Made It,” of course, “The Man Who Married a Robot,” and less directly, two songs about mortality whose very emotions seem to have been drawn up by the online experience: “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” and “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes).” For most (a pleb, degenerate, idiot), 5-7 songs is far too many for an artist to sing about the internet. To the 1975 (an intellectual, scholar, digital prophet), it’s a start. They’ll have to double that on their already-planned fourth album Notes on a Conditional Form. (Forget Drake’s “playlist,” these guys make single albums that identify as double albums.)
If Healy can get meta, so can his judges. I chose to write about the new 1975 album not because it’s the best album of all-time or the year or maybe even its release week (Earl Sweatshirt’s discovered reluctant hooks, watch out), No, every generation of music critics has that zeitgeist-wrangling linchpin who represents wish fulfillment and a tabula rasa simultaneously, perfect for projecting our own ideals (our own would-be rock-star selves?) onto, artists that make us really write: Radiohead, Animal Collective, Kanye West, Lana Del Rey. And in the 1975’s case, the symbiosis appears to be mutual; that critical adulation validates the newest and most meta Only Band That Matters, one who couldn’t exist in a vacuum. Thom Yorke wondered aloud how to disappear completely, for Matty Healy he can quit anytime he wants to, he just has to log off.
No one’s more bored than me to report that A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is definitely the 1975’s best album, proving Matty Healy can kick not just opiates but M83 instrumentals, and their nutjob fans don’t need me to demur that the way this band takes giant leaps, the next one will top this too (to say nothing for the skill of bottoming). But topping themselves is why bands like this exist, and not since Bono, he himself the inventor of the meta, world-surveying ironic-pop album epic, has a would-be fuckface like Matty Healy been in such command of his own pomp and circumstance. Read the interviews (I like the Vulture one) and he knows his way around his big mouth, too, which thus far has only incurred a single public apology, for stepping out of his lane slightly on rap. With two number-one albums and Pitchfork’s song of the year, Healy may have repossessed Kanye’s mantle for himself as the new face of self-deprecating toxic masculinity Because Genius.
That’s not to say he’s not pretty good at what looks like healthy, empathetic interaction with his fans, and he eulogizes a 16-year-old suicide in “Give Yourself a Try” once you can hear past the gulping, scraping guitar loop. This is where his always-online schtick has its advantages; you don’t know shit about suicide in 2018 if you don’t understand the internet. Elsewhere he remarks upon “a face collapsed through entropy” and constantly peppers his morbid examinations of contemporary humankind with his own addiction-oriented regrets. You can poke holes in his long-winded rhetoric, though. “I’m sure that you’re gonna say that I was sexist” puts the “y” and “y” in “Matty Healy;” he need not be dog-whistling his pet emo boys. And a song like “Sincerity Is Scary” makes him sound like a Relationship Anarchist in the first place (“Caring Is Creepy” was already taken — Matty Healy is the Shins, Zach Braff and Manic Pixie Natalie Portman all in one). Like most sensitive frontmen, he runs the risk of pretending he has less of a grip on his sexuality than his fans do theirs.
But he’s trying, and that’s what this album’s kind of about: Trying. It sure catalogs a lot of failings though, as the “We Didn’t Livestream the Fire” first single “Love It If We Made It” only looks to its heavenward backbeat for uplift. The next song is “Be My Mistake,” and again it’s the “Can’t Help Falling in Love”-quoting melody that fills out Healy’s cynicism with hope. That’s not to say the scattered easter eggs on the order of “poison me daddy” aren’t amusing, just that we’re really here for the squirty synth hook underneath the reggaeton of “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME,” or the fried Auto-Tune of “I Like America & America Likes Me” boiling over into a rather beautiful chorus, or the actual performance of that rage in “Love It If We Made It” that is this record’s secret weapon. “Moved on her like a bitch,” Healy expectorates, each verse more exasperated than the last as the drums and pizzicatos well up like furious tears. When he has Siri narrate the bold-goofy “The Man Who Married a Robot,” he names the protagonist SnowflakeSmasher86 to make sure we know which side of the empathy line he’s satirizing.
The music on A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is not irresistible but it’s frequently gorgeous and every single song, even on the syrupy, ballad-sogged second half, gets away with something. I’d cut “Surrounded by Heads and Bodies” if not for the jarring bossa nova turns, “Mine,” which is one impressive Roy Hargrove (R.I.P.) showcase too many, and the Dionne Warwick-ready “I Couldn’t Be More in Love,” even though it earns its key change. They’re not pleasureless, but they’re here for Healy’s vision of a perfect album, not mine. He prizes grandeur over momentum, which is why nothing else on the prior album could come near the actually-irresistible skitter of “UGH!” a tricky-metered addiction song no one hesitated to send to radio. The multi-tiered (teared?) Relationships has one of those, too, with the knots untangled and much broader appeal: “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You),” the purest pop song here, about a breakup with heroin. But the massive chorus will make quite a valentine to the audience as well. They can help each other stay alive. Perhaps A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships really is the album of the year, which doesn’t mean the best one. It’s just of it.