As Enigmatic as Impressive, The 1975 Defy Classification on ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’
“Please stop calling us a rock band,” pleads singer Matty Healy of enigmatic Manchester outfit The 1975, “‘cause I think that’s the only music we don’t make.” It’s a valid point. The “pop” descriptor originally referred to the entire “popular” category, encompassing virtually everything other than classical and avant garde, but the cultural changes have skewed definitions, and “pop” — especially in America — is generally understood to denote only the glossiest readymades. Interestingly, The 1975 is distinctly “pop,” even in latter interpretation. The groups new album, “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships” is replete with trendy, frivolous excesses to rival any current streaming sensations. Unlike most of their peers, however, the members of The 1975 are also well-versed jazz musicians, and unafraid to show it. Add to this a curiously compelling penchant for sounds of the eighties, and the band’s unique sonic hodgepodge begins to make some sense. Named after the subtitle of an essay by Gene McHugh, the latest record explores our peculiar relationships with technology. However, this topic is tangential to the bulk of the content. The set of songs is essentially a meditation on modern life, covering disparate issues, and fittingly shuttling between wildly varied styles. There are dancefloor bangers, Auto-tune binges, sweeping ballads, and free jazz excursions, along with songwriting and production that draws equally from the eighties and the trends of today. It’s a one-of-a-kind, unclassifiable, profoundly eclectic indulgence.
The new record, like all of the others, begins with a version of the band’s title track. This rendition of “The 1975” seems designed to set an unsettling tone for the album’s titular “Inquiry,” with unwieldy clunks of stacked vocoder-led meldies, sounding like a system overload, and giving a sense of being trapped in technology. Then, out of the blue, the band erupts into “Give Yourself a Try,” which Healy wrote about a fan who committed suicide. It’s the first sign of an unchecked eighties fixation that colors much of the record. In this case, it’s a throwback to the blaring electric guitar tomfoolery that was once the norm in pop songs. The singing, meanwhile, is — for lack of a better term — “emo.” Healy affects his whiniest voice, as if seeking to demonstrate his acute sensitivity to just about everything.
“TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. A heavily Dancehall-influenced, festive riot of a track, it’s all candy-coated and colorful — outlandishly buoyant and chirpy. The band pulls it off swimmingly, and just the versatility already demonstrated makes it clear the 1975 are something altogether different. “How To Draw / Petrichor” is a vocoder-led remake of an older track. It begins with hazy ambient jazz, full of rich texture, and spacious, whimsical arrangements. Toward the end, it suddenly takes off on a garage beat, with noisy whirlwinds of guitar feedback, meshing with the droning overtones.
“Love It If We Made It” is a largely incoherent collection of quotes from headline and friends of Healy’s. Along the way, Healy makes such seeping statements as “Modernity has failed us,” and calls out Kanye West, with nothing more than a sarcastic “”Thank you Kanye, very cool!.” He sings the song in a rather maddening, bizarre, strained monotone. It sounds almost as if he were trying to stay on rhythm, and inadvertently revealing, through the absurdity of the resulting sound, how disturbed he might actually be. How much of this is intentional, one can only speculate. As if this weren’t over the top enough, the eighties sensibilities are entertained to staggering heights on this track.
Healy and crew keep the curve balls coming, shifting shapes uncannily, and showing both real range and skilled musicianship. The intricate, outre piano on “Be My Mistake” adds a new dimension to what would otherwise be standard coffee house singer-songwriter fare. “Sincerity is Scary” explores the increasingly relevant issue of people’s tendency to hide behind irony, but seems to lose focus, ending up in a sing-along chorus of “Why can’t we be friends, when we are lovers?” “I Like America & America Likes Me” fits autotune choirs to trap beats, and has been described by Healy as a “homage to SoundCloud rap,” which he considers “the sound of America to me at the moment.” The awkwardness of the heavily treated vocals becomes a bit comical when Healy repeatedly pleads, “Please listen.” As on the opening track, this song conveys a certain disconnect with modern world. Politically vocal as usual, Healy devotes several lines to the matter of gun control.
“The Man Who Married a Robot / Love Theme” is very much what you would expect from the title — a spoken word account of said topic, reportedly narrated by Siri, in one of his/her voices. The premise is the same as that of Spike Jonze’s 2013 film “Her,” just less thoroughly realized. Still, it’s a chilling extrapolation of our reliance on technology, and consequent alienation from our fellow man. Along with all the dystopian imaginings, Healy devotes a couple songs to his struggles in overcoming heroin addiction. “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” follows in a long tradition of songs about drugs that read as if they were about romantic interests. There’s no glorification here, however, only an expression of optimism in the face of frustration. As if to drive the point home, the album ends with “I Always Wanna Die (Sormetimes,)” which expands on the anti-suicide message of “Give Yourself a Try.” The title draws attention to the fleeting nature of human emotion. In the context of the album, it’s a pronouncement of encouragement in an increasingly confusing and frightening world.
“A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships” seems to raise more questions than answers, just from a musical standpoint. The type of radical stylistic transformations that the 1975 casually undergo, from one song to the next, is simply unheard of, save for novelty music and perhaps theater. Meanwhile, the conceptual focus on the effects of technology is itself fascinating. The album is not particularly cohesive, musically or lyrically, but perhaps a band as unique as this should be allowed free reign to do whatever it is they’re doing. At any rate, it’s an extraordinary release.
“A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships” is available Nov. 30 on Apple Music.