Listening to the fourth album by The 1975 is like gold prospecting: once you filter through the mud, and there is a fair amount of mud, you will find something more than worth your time.
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“How can you solve all the problems around you when you can’t even solve the ones in your head?” That question was the nucleus of DIY ska-punk champion Jeff Rosenstock’s ‘Powerlessness’, a frenetic and panicked blurt. In the two years since Rosenstock put himself on blast, The 1975 have taken that question and rattled it: throttled it to the point of no return. The Manchester group enjoy the existential; songs about the fear of death are masked as love songs, mental illness represented in the form of an uncontrollable sentient brain. In doing so, The 1975 have been one of the most exciting and unpredictable acts in British music for the last decade.
The past eighteen months have seen the band outdo themselves – releasing two albums totalling thirty-seven songs – in an attempt to find answers. And with their fourth album, The 1975, for the first time, only seem to ask more questions.
‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ was formally announced as the second part in The 1975’s ‘Music For Cars’ era on 31st May 2018. That same day they released ‘Give Yourself A Try’. That was the lead single from album three and the first part, ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ – a sprawling but mesmerising record of airtight emotion, intent and craft. The era’s title predates their 2013 self-titled debut; an EP by the same name was released over seven years ago.
What ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ was originally intended to be and what it ultimately is are undoubtedly not the same. For one, ‘Notes’ has been postponed twice – 21st February and 24th April were not to be. Their March 2020 UK tour should have been a post-album celebration; instead, an in limbo rehearsal for their next step. Then the tour for their widely-celebrated British Album of the Year Brit Award-winning ‘Brief Inquiry’ overlapped with album four’s recording. Consequently ‘Notes’ was recorded over eighteen months in fifteen studios. You can hear the tension of the recording process in the music.
As a result, ‘Notes’ is an exhausted sign of the times: a studio album from a band that could not settle in one. It is sporadic, intense and deeply troubled. It will easily be the album that shapes the band’s legacy.
An overarching sense of purpose clouds the album. It is as if The 1975 are aware of the expectation fans, critics, and the band, have put on the record. What should they be saying? ‘Notes’ starts off with a clear vision but gets lost in all the hysteria. The promise of potential commences the album. As with the three preceding albums, ‘The 1975’ kicks things off. The first album made use of the blow-job-referencing lyrics and sounded suitably sleazy. Albums two and three inevitably sounded more self-critical and desolate. Here, they trade sex acts for activism. Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg is the first voice you will hear. For five minutes, she speaks her unfiltered, unflinching truth. “Solving the climate crisis is the greatest and most complex challenge that Homo sapiens have ever faced,” she states. It is a terrifying and brutal opener.
For the sake of the message, it is superb. A confessional and explosive piece that opens your mind from the off. However, what do The 1975 expect? Will fans of the band actively listen to the five-minute spoken-word climate change TED talk every time they play the album? However seriously the band takes the issue (and to their credit, they really do), it pierces the vision of a complete album from the beginning. A dispensable, skippable (and painfully tedious) opener.
As the album unfolds, lead singer and the band’s seemingly omniscient idol Matty Healy gets sidetracked repetitively. On ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’, he lists mindless thoughts over a cold electronic instrumental, none of which are things anyone should know. “I’d like to meet myself and smoke clouds”, for example. You did not need to tell us.
‘Playing On My Mind’, a genuinely beautiful acoustic number finds Healy rambling about more personal thoughts. One-liners like, “Let’s find something to watch then watch our phones for half the time”, bite with wit and cynicism. While couplets such as: “And I won’t get clothes online ’cause I get worried about the fit / That rule don’t apply concerning my relationships”, sting with the self-deprecating tone Healy has made a name for himself with. A moving and confessional number, it is brilliant but in the context of an album that opens with a seventeen year-old climate change activist telling you: “It’s time to rebel”, it borders on self indulgence.
As always, The 1975 have broadened their horizons. It is incredibly rare to find a band in modern pop experimenting as much as they do. The 1975 use genre like an identity: ‘People’ addresses human extinction over a shocking hardcore instrumental; ‘Me & You Together Song’ adopts Busted’s persona to sing of an idyllic romance that likely will not happen; ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’ sees the group become Tears For Fears in an attempt to humanise internet sex.
‘Roadkill’, in a radical trip, is the band’s first foray into trucker rock. Perhaps an ode to one of Healy’s favourites Pinegrove, they use the corny caricature to exaggerate the ridiculousness of Healy’s thought process. “I feel like my tucked-up erection, there’s pressure all over my head”, might just be the most stupid lyric of 2020. Judging by the lyric, “And I took shit for being quiet during the election, maybe that’s fair but I’m a busy guy”, this is The 1975 at their most carefree. It is a healthy and entertaining excursion.
The aforementioned song sticks out even more considering how heavy the album is: in theme and instrumentation. The 1975 engage in electronics more than ever on ‘Notes’. ‘Having No Head’ is a six-minute instrumental floor-filler, where drummer and producer George Daniel takes centre-stage. What starts as vintage The 1975 plink-plonk blossoms into a cathartic thumper at the halfway mark.
‘Shiny Collarbone’ is at once cringe-inducing and absolutely thrilling. Featuring Jamaican dancehall act Cutty Ranks, it is the furthest the band has pushed themselves. There is little purpose in this shape-shifting hit, perhaps only to replicate the sensation of feeling mindless. Then ‘Yeah I Know’, the first proper unreleased single on the project is reminiscent of ‘Kid A’-meets-‘Blinded By the Lights’. With a pitched chorus chanting “Hit that shit”, it is not as lyrically adventurous but still a fascinating audible experience.
This raises the question of what purpose the omnipresent pitched vocals serve. Providing a concerning edge to lyrics like “Do you wanna go and get fucked up?” (‘The Birthday Party’), could it be an attempt to segregate Matty Healy from his internal demons? It is a loose thread, but at least it is a thread.
Perhaps the most crushing fact that dominates the listening experience of ‘Notes’ is that the months of build-up showed how great the singles are. ‘People’ is by far the most exciting single a major act has released in the past half-decade. No other band would dare go near that. ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’ is something the band can conjure with considerate ease. It is almost heartbreaking that the band are so clearly capable of writing some of the best songs in their career, but feel obliged to hide them amongst ten or so shockingly flimsy cuts.
And they really can write some absolute belters. ‘Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied’ is as if Brockhampton had more talent. With The London Community Gospel Choir in support, Healy’s voice feels more assured. As with ‘If I Believe You’ from their second record, the strategic employment of a gospel choir to make Healy’s insecurities feel more validated is a stroke of genius. Enrapturing and infectious, you will find yourself chanting the chorus at home. This is then followed by ‘Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)’. Label mate No Rome contributes to the writing for this The Temptations-sampling pop gem. George Daniel knocks this one out of the park; this will go off at their shows. Concluding with a sax solo, The 1975 find comfort in another gorgeous love song.
Unfortunately ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ tries to be too much. Twenty-two songs and eighty minutes: of course it is going to be a challenge. This is a record that starts off confronting the end of humanity and by the halfway mark sees Matty Healy singing: “Oh, please ignore me, I’m just feeling sorry for myself.” It is simply not thought through enough, or it is thought through too much. They take on styles like throwing darts at a board. The consistent inconsistency becomes grating after a while.
However The 1975, to their credit, stick the landing. ‘Don’t Worry’ is penned by Tim Healy, Matty’s father. The song, written when Matty was two years old, has been adapted into a Bon Iver-esque lullaby. It is a tear-jerker, an ode to a father-son relationship barely explored before in the band’s discography. “Don’t worry, darling ‘cause I’m here with you.” It would be a stretch even for The 1975’s biggest critics to not be moved by it.
The album’s closer ‘Guys’ has been suggested by a portion of fans to be the band’s farewell. Realistically it is unlikely to be a sendoff for a band with plenty more to say. For an album as chaotic and frustratingly careless as this, ‘Guys’ is, at last, a simple, effective track. In all the chaos that Matty Healy tries to decipher over the previous twenty-one songs, the only thing that makes sense is his love for his friends. Stripping away the facade, this almost-live performance with straightforward lyrics is the antidote to his problems.There is no flashy production here; no bass-drop; no FKA twigs or Phoebe Bridgers (They make appearances on this record! A lot happens!); no hypothetical life-questioning melancholy. It is simply a song about four guys who love each other.
Matty Healy asks a lot of questions on this disorientated, muddled album. Most of them remain unanswered. If this album can tell Healy anything it is this: his guys, his bandmates, are the answer to all his questions.
‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ by The 1975 is out now via Dirty Hit