The 1975: Self-Aware, Self-Indulgent and, Yes, Sincere

The 1975 is a British pop band, not a graduate seminar’s sparsely attended lecture series, though the titles of its most recent albums certainly invite that clarification. The bold, eclectic “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships” from 2018 found the verbose, self-aware frontman Matty Healy moving deftly between arena-sized anthems and confessional ballads, serving up cheeky Twitter-era bons mots on the pitfalls of fame, mortality and contemporary life. (“Danny says we’re living in a simulation,” he sang, “but he works in a petrol station.”) Now, a year and a half later, comes the 200-level curriculum: “Notes on a Conditional Form.”

As the group has evolved beyond the tuneful, glammy emo-pop of its 2013 self-titled debut, the 1975 — Healy, the multi-instrumentalist George Daniel, the guitarist Adam Hann and the bassist Ross MacDonald — has repositioned itself as a band increasingly porous to the historical present and just about every genre of music that exists within it. “Love It if We Made It,” a highlight off its last album, was a lyrical collage of surreal headlines and internet jargon (“Poison me daddy,” Healy sang, with all the force and decontextualized irony of a Jenny Holzer installation); few songs have so potently captured the very particular cocktail of numbness, absurdity and stubborn hope that characterizes the internet age.

The 1975 tows a precarious line: Any band willing to make earnest pronouncements about The Way We Live Now is constantly risking empty grandeur and songs that age like broken hyperlinks. Still, being achingly self-aware and post-post-everything, it has also succinctly summed up the strongest argument against itself in the title of one of its own songs: “Sincerity Is Scary.”

Credit…Polydor Records, via Associated Press

In 2017, Drake — an artist with similar thematic concerns — released “More Life,” a 22-track, 82-minute collection of new music that he called a “playlist.” It’s unclear what made it different from a Drake album or mixtape, but the 1975 could have gotten away with using that term to package the sprawling, moody “Notes on a Conditional Form” (as it happens, another 22-track, 80-odd-minute affair). It moves not so much like a traditional album as a curated collection of peaks and valleys, of sonic rhymes and sudden contrasts, replete with unexpected cameos (Greta Thunberg, Phoebe Bridgers, FKA twigs) that look strange on paper but somehow make sense within its own loose logic. It is, as the kids say, a vibe.

And a pretty downcast one, at that. Previous 1975 records have been long but enlivened with sleek production and sugar-rush hooks. “Notes” largely favors pensive acoustic guitars, bleary-eyed beats and melancholy orchestral flourishes. Described by Healy as the band’s “U.K. nighttime record,” its working title was “Music for Cars.” (He explained further: “in cars smoking weed, Burial and McDonald’s and the M62 and Manchester — just England!”) Indeed, it often has the feel of scanning through late-night radio stations on a never-ending nocturnal drive, moving between the pulsating electronic sounds of “Yeah I Know” and “What Should I Say” and the melodic, teenage fanclub-esque fuzz of ’90s throwbacks like “Me & You Together Song” and “Then Because She Goes.”

Like “Love It if We Made It,” a number of these songs are attuned to how the constant threat of global catastrophe (invoked by a Thunberg spoken-word piece that opens the album) has trickled down into the anxious psyches of an entire generation. “Go outside? Seems unlikely,” Healy sings at the beginning of the tender pastoral “Frail State of Mind”(a line that has added resonance now). Drugs and casual sex hover eternally in the background of his id-driven narratives, promising easy escape but echoing hangovers. Mutually supportive community offers a possible alternative: In “The Birthday Party” — an acoustic-driven song that contrasts a lovely, lilting melody with debauched lyrics — he admits, “I depend on my friends to stay clean, as sad as that seems.”

Even with their moments of introspection, previous 1975 albums were feats of extroversion: The yelping, ironic-rock-star missives of a song like the in-your-face “Love Me” from 2015 are directed outward, from an imagined stage to a rapt audience. But “Notes” seems to be reaching for something more youthful, innocent and even private — back to a time before Healy and his mates had to deal with any of the glitz and were just excited about making music. “The moment that we started a band was the best thing that ever happened,” he sings on the warm, affecting closer “Guys,” “And I wish that we could do it again.” It is a sweetly sad song about yearning to get back to the garden, or maybe just the garage.

Its antenna tuned to the frequencies of a busy, banal world, the 1975 still evokes the occasional cringe: “Ed Ruscha” is rhymed with “kombucha” on this album; “Obama” with both “sauna” and “marijuana.” But for an album as expansive and big-swinging as “Notes,” its hit rate is surprisingly high.

The 1975 is still walking that tightrope of self-indulgence, but more often than not it has learned how to retain its balance. Plus, when your sensors are that receptive, they occasionally catch transmissions from the near-future: “I don’t like going outside so bring me everything here,” Healy drones on the eerily prescient “People,” while the album’s irresistible hit single “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” chronicles the awkwardness and the glory of webcam intimacy. At its best, “Notes” evokes some of the present moment’s rarest commodities: An endless, raucous night out with friends, or even the earnest tenderness of a long, enveloping embrace.

The 1975
“Notes on a Conditional Form”
(Dirty Hit/Interscope)

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