The 1975 Deliver a Sprawling Epic of Inflated Bombast With ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’
The 1975 are a band that can not be categorized by a specific signature. They shift shapes, combining the trends of today with the traditions of yesterday, darting restlessly from one style to the next. As ambitious as their range are the conceits of their records. 2018’s “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships” was a sprawling meditation on modern life with pop channeled through everything from Auto-tune-drenched dancefloor bangers to free jazz and balladry. Their followup, “Notes on a Conditional Form,” originally slated for a May 2019 release and pushed back multiple times, goes even further, with a staggering 22 tracks. While politics and social commentary make their way into some of the tracks, as always, the new songs are more centered around frontman Matt Healy’s personal afflictions, while the eclectic musical forays shuttle primarily between moody melancholy numbers and dancy moments of relief.
Keeping with a tradition of their own, the band starts with a self-titled track. Last July, they teamed up with teenage activist Greta Thunberg, and gave her the canvas of an impressionistic piano track to speak about climate change. Alarmist but encouraging, she compels us to take action. She doesn’t say anything original, and the whole undertaking is a bit underwhelming, but the 1975 can be applauded for giving her a platform. The real call to action comes on lead single “People,” a blaring rocker with Healy screaming, “Wake up!” to a driving riff and whiplash stomp. Easily among the band’s heaviest songs, it’s a powerful, mobilizing intro, unlike anything else, as the pointed aggression gives way to cloudier ruminations.
“The End (Music For Cars),” an orchestral overture as bombastic as the album altogether, leads into another single worlds away, “Frail State of Mind.” Over a mellow two step shuffle, Healy sings his phrases in coy, flimsy utterances that convey the eponymous mentality. In context, the moderately dancey machinery functions as a refuge from the harsh outside world, and there is plenty of atmospheric filigree to get lost in. “The Birthday Party” is a withdrawn, languorous track that finds a sobered up Healy getting back into the motions of things, and dragging along, detached. He narrates social encounters from a guarded, jaded perspective and highlights minutiae in a dissolving relationship. The band trudges along with a plodding banjo guiding his defeated, breathy lamentations.
“Yeah I Know,” a UK garage-informed, beat-driven number, brings some relief from the depressing lag, while still expressing the struggle to keep on. Pitch-shifted snippets of advice like “Pick a card / Yeah I know” are delivered over a beat whose buoyancy mocks their enthusiasm. After all this sourness, “Then Because She Goes” rings triumphant, a shoegaze-ey diversion that brings back the guitars in all their splendor, and finds Healy professing love in the ringing haze. It’s short-lived however, as “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” returns to the strained sounds and sentiments of “The Birthday Party.” Picking both of these songs as singles is quite a bold move, as their despiriting drawl is hardly fetching. This time, Healy and featured singer Phoebe Bridgers trade verses about struggling with queer identity in the face of disapproving religious teachings. Needless to say, the song title is sardonic, and the irony bleeds into the next track, “Roadkill,” on which Healy continues to lament his life on the road in colloquial detail, this time adopting a jokey singsong and small town, blues rock stylings.
Another relatively straightforward ditty, “Me & You Together Song,” picks up where “Then Because She Goes” left off, continuing the shuttling between escapism and drudgery. On “I Think There’s Something You Should Know,” Healy goes back to pronouncing his anxieties in the most spirited of rhythms, simultaneously indulging and poking fun at his struggle. “Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied” enlists a gospel choir for a refrain of “Life feels like a lie / I need something to be true.” Healy correspondingly sets out to correct untruths, at one point revising a detail from last album’s “Love It If We Made It.” Pitched-down spoken word, Auto-tune frivolity and bluesy guitar soloing make for a zealous display of conviction.
“Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)” is a smooth jazz-informed R&B tune on which Healy coos away over festive horns and the type of ‘80s stylings that could only be employed ironically. It’s the latest insincere love song in a series of escapist excursions. “Shiny Collarbone,” a lively, syncopated number, featuring dancehall vocals from Cutty Ranks, manages to briefly transcend the dour spirit. This is all eclipsed, however, by the beaming excesses of “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know).” After an ambient intro featuring uncredited vocals from The brilliant FKA Twigs, the band set out sonically to embrace every ‘80s outrage they can muster in five minutes. They even throw in a sax solo, and how Healy keeps a straight face throughout is a question for the ages. The titular suggestion comes in a dialogue with an internet personality, continuing the last album’s focus on online relationships. Unlike the other lukewarm romantic encounters described, this one is celebrated with pomp and flair, making a grand lampoon of a pitiful state. Having expelled considerable energy in his online escapade, Healey withdraws to acoustic guitar and laidback, reflective musings on the folky “Playing On My Mind.”
The instrumental “Having No Head” begins with plaintive piano, and builds into a dancy romp full of brass and bass. “What Should I Say?” lingers in the groove, with minimal lyrics like the titular question warbling in an environment of dancefloor abandon. The vocals remain treated on “Bagsy Not In Yet,” when Healy asks, “Do you wanna leave at the same time?” making for the longest lighthearted stretch on an album that has shifted moods erratically until now. When the rhythms have long ceased, there comes the reassuring refrain, “Don’t worry darling / I’m still with you” over lone piano. If it sounds like a lullaby, it is, with Healy’s own father singing the same song, “Don’t Worry,” that he wrote for his toddler son. This seems to be the magic touch, as it leads into the blissful closer, “Guys.” Having belabored his neuroses and danced them away, Healey reemerges resplendent, pronouncing his appreciation of his bandmates. Having regressed to childlike simplicity and returned reanimated, he beams, “You guys are the best things that ever happened to me,” over shoegaze haze and sunkissed melodies.
As always, the 1975 leave the listener in awe. However, you might find yourself this time asking not only how they produced this epic work, but also why. In the beginning, it appeared their aim was to save the planet, but after the brief tantrum of “People,” Healy abruptly drew us into his personal headspace. The bulk of the album is an exploration of ennui. Healy does his lamenting and soul searching from creative angels, and presents his jaded disillusionment with a variety of sounds. Musically, the album stands out for both its dismal songs of detachment and its newfound focus on UK garage-inspired sounds. The problem is that Healy and crew don’t stick to a sound long enough for it to really sink in. The band do justice to every genre in which they dabble, but the darting between styles is too random to be cohesive. On one hand, the 1975 deserve credit for following their whims. There are too many artists who only ever explore a fraction of what they should. Still, there could be some direction. “Notes On a Conditional Form” plays like a big budget endeavor with no planning and no discipline. It would have probably worked better if the band abandoned continuity altogether, as the few attempts at it are futile and compromising. If you can disregard that the songs do not fit together as a package, however, you’ll be left to enjoy a group of phenomenal recordings.
“Notes On a Conditional Form” is available May 22 on Apple Music.