New Album From The 1975 Ditches Perfect Pop-Rock for Genre-Defying Maximalism
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Notes on a Conditional Form, the fourth release from The 1975, opens — as do all three albums before it — with a track called, of course, “The 1975.” Usually they are brief snapshots of what’s on vocalist Matt Healy’s mind, a short agenda of things to come. Over an ambient, treated soundscape that would do his hero Brian Eno proud, ecological activist Greta Thunberg recites a plea for healing against the future destruction of the planet by the greedy hands of its inhabitants.
“Is the current set of circumstances, in terms of society and the way it’s impacting the individual, sustainable?” Healy has said of his guiding thoughts in writing this record. “Can the center hold?”
At an hour and 21 minutes, over 22 songs (including interludes), The 1975 don’t provide answers so much as get deep in the mess of the world. Not only do they love it, it’s where they live: in the heart of the sprawl. Long gone are the succinct, savvy pop-rock craftsmen of their self-titled debut. Instead of doubling down on the commercial verities of that eponymous hit, they became experimental pop maximalists. No genre is off limits. They refuse to be contained by labels. And this is what has made them not only beloved, but — to get all pretentious about it — real artists.
No surprise, then, that Healy is a narcissist; a very self-aware one. “It’s just like a mirror — that’s all I want my records to be, a mirror to myself,” Healy has said. “I really don’t think that I’m special. I think that if I hold a mirror up to myself, I have to be holding a mirror up to lots of other people.”
I wouldn’t take that humble sentiment too seriously. Healy is special; he has the gift that the best pop artists share: he presents the particulars of his own escapades and thoughts in such redolent detail he turns them into universal experiences. He morphed his struggles with heroin addiction into what Pitchfork called “a generational anthem” on 2018’s “Love It If We Made It;” he pulls a similar trick here on the anecdotal “The Birthday Party,” a post-addiction essay of his still blazing friends that’s as funny as it is deeply melancholy.
Along with his bandmates — lead guitarist Adam Hann, bassist Ross MacDonald, and percussionist George Daniel — The 1975 visit baggy Britpop (“You & Me Together Song”), a bawdy gospel service replete with choir (“Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied”), the celebratory end credits of an ’80s John Hughes movie (“If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”), and a grungy punk club with sticky floors (the gloriously unhinged “People,” the first proper song on the record after the opening).
And that’s just the tip of this shaggy, spectacular record. It’s longer than 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships; deeper and more focused as well. Healy not only turns a mirror onto himself (and, thus, all of us); he’s learned how to inhabit the point of view of others (like Walt Whitman, another lauded narcissist, he contains multitudes). A duet with Phoebe Bridgers, “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” is a quiet highlight: the story of two heartland kids struggling with same-sex crushes that’s as delicate and expressive as Sufjan Stevens. Healy’s both himself and a chorus of concerned friends calling him out on the millennial rallying cry of “Frail State of Mind.” And he closes the record with “Guys,” an encomium to his bandmates, obliterating the homophobia of bro culture with this plaintive, sincere sentiment: “you were the love of my life.”
He’s right to love them, because the answers to the questions that guided him while creating Notes on a Conditional Form and that are quoted above are: no, our current circumstances are not sustainable, and, no, the center won’t hold. He’s smart enough to know that love isn’t the answer. Yet he’s also talented enough, with the stealth support of friends that have grown along with him each step of the way, to make you almost believe that it just could be.