Looking at The 1975’s remarkable and confusing new classic
Artist: The 1975 Album: Notes On A Conditional Form Label: Dirty Hit/Interscope ★★★★ 1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
With the infectious “Chocolate” in 2013, The 1975 crafted the near-perfect track (at least the near-perfect early-’10s alt-rock single).
The following cut on their eponymous debut, “Sex” (with its “she’s got a boyfriend anyway” repeated refrain), is no slacker either — OK, so they did go with some pretty accessible topics. And their first record was pretty straight-forward and confectionery — somewhere between the rock fire of Kings of Leon and the unabashed dance pop of acts like WALK THE MOON and Foster The People — but it also worked. It was a well-crafted pop album.
It’s not unusual that bands from The Beatles to The Beastie Boys to Radiohead (to Fiona Apple, whose latest critically-deemed masterpiece dropped last month) have released pop-friendly opening albums before diverging into the experimental. However, it does not always work, and when its principle singer-songwriter Matty Healy has dubbed it the second installation from the band’s “third album cycle” which he calls “Music For Cars,” the temptation is there to just presume the latter (while rolling one’s eyes Tina Fey-hard).
There’s familiar moments on Notes on a Conditional Form as with “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” as the band slides back into something close to its original sound and it’s an intelligent pop gem. As cheeky as the title is, “Me & You Together Song” brims with a breezy brand of rock, and just a touch of late-’80s/early-’90s modern rock distortion and so is immediately endearing, as is its sappy romantic repeated notion at the end: “I’ve been in love with you for ages.” It’s no coincidence these are the two most successful singles. These two tracks may, if you have not been paying attention to this band.
The group goes all in on the opening eponymous track “The 1975” (all their albums’ opening tracks have that title) bringing in the sage, unminced words of teen Swede activist Greta Thunberg about our future in regards to climate change. This really should not be all that controversial: anyone not blinded by whatever is that charm is that Trump/Boris/Bolsinaro know we’re in danger. However, it does stand to immediately alienate some fans.
There’s a certain precocious brilliance in Thunberg’s urgent poetry (and if you haven’t guessed, I’m solidly Team Greta) in that while it’s ostensibly one issue, her words address a more universal problem — one of both America and the rest of the civilized world. There is a definite disconnect, lethargy, and lack of empathy that pervades society, holding us back from becoming the enlightened society we could be — and we will need to be if we want to survive on this planet between the encroaching environment and the disappearance of jobs to automation. NOW!
That The 1975 give her this platform is daring to a point, although to be fair I’m not sure the center of the Venn diagram of The 1975 fans and hardcore conservative MAGA-heads (or pro-Brexiters… they are Brits after all) is particularly populated. More importantly to why we’re here today, it sets up the ferocity of the opening track “People” which opens “wake up, wake up, wake up” as if they just heard Harold Melvin’s “Wake Up Everybody” and were pissed off at how milquetoast it was. And the lyrics play like someone who has just awoken — both metaphorically and literally — as they spray all over the place from fickle youth to blind love for Barack Obama to our obsession with ordering things online. The song pre-dates our current quarantined predicament, so it’s extra prescient, I guess. It sets the tone for a prismatic, sometimes disorienting, album.
It’s even more adventurous than the first half of this cycle — an album praised for its willingness to take risks. In many ways, the record reminds me a lot of 13 by Blur, another band who started off pop, but built into one of the more respected boundary-pushers. That album was less overtly political, although it did feature a second track which made fun of our desire for creature comforts. There’s plenty of earworms and it’s practically overloaded with pop-friendly moments — although it’s pop from so many different angles — but they are patched together by disparate interludes. It’s easy to get lost in this record.
One of the dilemmas in trying to connect to Notes is it can be hard to tell whether the group is sincerely trying to embrace worlds of genres or is just trying to take the piss out of people. In “Wake Up” they could be genuinely representing the confusion of modern life, and the need for action instead of malaise, or they could just be spouting venom at all sides. Yes, the latter can work, but it can also be exhausting.
So it goes on one of the most difficult tracks to unpack and it’s right there in the title “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America.” It’s either poking fun or paying homage to a certain brand of sleepy-eyed post-alt-country — think Iron & Wine or Devendra Banhart, but was also popular with formerly angrily emo bands like The Promise Ring and The Get-Up Kids — or ripping it apart. The title and lines like “if we turn into a tree, can I be the leaves” or the chorus “I’m in love with the girl next door/her name is Claire/nice when she comes round to call/then masturbate the second she’s not there” would put it closer to parody. It even lampshades it all by constantly commenting on its own “irony.” It’s also bewitchingly beautiful. So what do you do with that?
There’s also “Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied,” where The 1975 practically mash together the entire last 30 years of R&B starting off as an inspirational early-’90s gospel-fueled boy-band message song, before leaning heavily into autotune on a slinky melody that belies its self-reflective existential crisis. Is it pretentious? Well, the title is no more so or less so than, say, “Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Hurt,” one of Kurt Vonnegut’s aphorisms about the meaning of life. Vonnegut is another artist who was known for being anything but transparent (and for slipping through stitches in time, for that matter), so maybe not the best example — or the perfect one. They even double-down on the R&B history by opening the next track with the chorus of The Temptations’ 1971 hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).” On the track, Healy negates a line from the first “cycle,” about getting “fucked in his car” and questions his place in both the music ecosystem, as well as the world-at-large. And it somehow fits the ridiculously impossible to pin down musical soundscape.
This album has been polarizing so far. If I were being cynical, I could run with Healy’s “Music For Cars” metaphor and argue that it reminds me of the test cassettes/CDs that came with car radios where they threw genres in a blender ostensibly based on what record companies would give them for free (or maybe pay them to feature — I’m honestly not sure who had the power in that transaction). However, that would imply that I did not enjoy this record — which I did thoroughly… well, mostly, and more than its lauded predecessor, for even though there’s more to digest, there’s also more intriguing music to ingest.
That being said, there’s a part of me that wants to dismiss this record wholesale. It either comes off as a glorious pastiche of genres artfully pulled together by charming interludes or it’s a hot mess. It could be an honest collection of witty observations or they could be having a go at us. Is it a beautiful collection of poetry and philosophy or are they engaged in dimestore pretention (and even know they’re doing it). It’s genuinely confounding. What’s a music critic to do? Ugh, and now they have me going all self-referential.
OK, bear down. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Do I think it’s well-crafted? Yes, even if it’s a lot. And it’s the 22 tracks kind of “a lot.” Do I buy the lyrics? Well, mostly I love them, even if I do get overwhelmed or irritated at times. There’s a lot to unpack in The 1975’s Notes From a Conditional Form. Ultimately, is it as fun a listen as their somewhat monochrome but delightful debut album? No. Would we likely be criticizing them if it were as easy to digest? Well, that’s obvious. It’s a baffling album. However, do I find myself coming back to it to find more to love? Yes. Emphatically, yes. Even if I’m not 100% sure it’s not a total train wreck, it’s a worthy listen. And it just may be genius. It’s a mess, but then so is life, and that might just be the band’s point.