2020 Music Reviews

Album Review: The 1975 ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’

1975 Notes on a Conditional Form

Matthew Healy — the indefatigable, controversy-courting frontman of Manchester pop-rock outfit The 1975 — has a lot of ideas about himself. Since the group’s self-titled 2013 debut album, the members have established themselves as hyper-productive purveyors of sugary, instant-gratification pop hits, and the singer himself continues to make efforts to confirm his status as the Messianic voice of his generation. The 1975 has since inflated into an attention-deficit, genre-hopping behemoth, with two successive albums (2016’s I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It  and 2018’s A Brief Enquiry into Online Relationships) proving Healy and his bandmates as competent, if overly-ambitious, songsmiths capable of turning out sturdy Spotify-friendly singles even when their releases’ more experimental, solemn diversions serve to baffle and disappoint. As such, The 1975’s latest offering, Notes on a Conditional Form, represents a significant overreach that undermines the band’s considerable, if limited, appeal.

Notes on a Conditional Form opens promisingly enough, with The 1975’s traditional self-titled opening track eschewing the usual, ill-judged verse about blowjobs for a four-minute speech from climate activist Greta Thunberg. The clarity of Thunberg’s words — her insistence that “older generations have failed” in their stewardship of the planet — is powerful, and the band is wise enough to provide a backdrop of formless electronic ambience rather than intruding unnecessarily. With the ferocious follow-up track “People,” The 1975 offers a quasi-hardcore punk tirade that superficially nods to superior acts such as Fugazi or Black Flag. Healy even manages to land a few wry observations about the modern world, as “I don’t like going outside so bring me everything here” sounds almost prophetic, written as it was prior to the coronavirus pandemic. So far, so serviceable. There’s still promise of the thematic focus that kept previous albums amiably listenable even at their most inexplicable, but any goodwill is quickly tarnished as this unnecessarily long album — an eye-watering 80 minutes and 22 tracks — begins in earnest.

Healy’s incorrigible ego is on full display in the album’s early stretch, which includes two superfluous orchestral interludes in “The End (Music for Cars)” and the exasperatingly-titled “Streaming.” There are two near-identical glitchy electronic meanderings in “Frail State of Mind” and “Yeah I Know,” with the former lifting its melodic throughline wholesale from A Brief Enquiry into Online Relationships standout “TooTimeTooTimeTooTime,” while the latter drags on with its lifeless processed vocal line. The same clubby aspirations, a calling card of drummer/producer George Daniel, rear their head on “I Think There’s Something You Should Know,” an infinitely stronger offering that further undermines the justification for the other tracks’ inclusion.

Lyrically, there’s a handful of pitches that land. Sifting through the smug self-satisfaction of Healy’s words occasionally uncovers an appealing one-liner such as chiding partygoers that “put on the tap to cover up the sound of your piss” on “The Birthday Party” or a self-deprecating jab at his own inconsistent politics (“took shit for being quiet during the election”) amid the Americana twang of “Roadkill.”

However, The 1975’s appetite for algorithm-approved eclecticism is undermined by the encroaching feeling that each outfit they try on has been pulled off better by someone more talented before. “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” leans heavily into the simplistic finger-picked sound of pop-folk acts such as Of Monsters & Men or Passenger, with its ruminations on queer teenage desire blighted by a string of unimaginative rhyming couplets and a chorus comprising a confusing metaphor about trees and leaves. A guest appearance by Phoebe Bridgers only serves to remind the listener that this aesthetic can be enjoyed in a more impressive form elsewhere.

Almost every song on Notes on a Conditional Form shows its hand in its opening bars, leaving little space for surprise or innovation. Lead single “Me & You Together Song” is carried on an irresistible pop melody, but its thin, unoriginal sound renders it inferior to manufactured early-2000s British pop-punk outfits like Busted or McFly rather than on par with The 1975’s 80s idols The Cure. Schmaltzy gospel/rap diversion “Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied” and the inexplicable Cutty Ranks-featuring dancehall experiment “Shiny Collarbone” suggest a more insidious appropriative streak, while a dependence on mournful autotuned vocals, most apparent on “What Should I Say,” suggests a surface-level reading of Kanye West, or latter-day Bon Iver at best.

The lack of consistency is especially frustrating when the few diamonds do emerge from the rough. Late highlight “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” is a bombastic success; an anthemic, timely ode to webcam romance carried on glistening 80s synths and guitars. Similarly, “Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)” sees The 1975 slowing and maturing its signature guitar-pop sound and hanging it off a simple, yearning hook. It’s clear in these fleeting gems that Healy has a knack for solid, reasonably clever pop, but the expansive folly of the album surrounding them betrays his inflated sense of self-importance, surely buoyed up by the cultural capital and access that comes with being the child of two prominent figures in the British entertainment industry — television presenter Denise Welch and actor Tim Healy (who duets with his son on rote lullaby track “Don’t Worry”).

Closing with the straightforward ballad “Guys” — an saccharine ode from Healy to his bandmates that falls in step with 90s/00s sad rockers such as Travis or Stereophonics – is a curious bookend to an album that opens with a bold environmentalist statement of intent from a prominent political voice. By the end, Notes on a Conditional Form reveals itself to be about very little — too incoherent to justify its length and too scattershot to feel like a unified whole. A playlist-ready collection of ramblings and experiments, its lack of substance on offer only serves to patronise the alert, engaged young demographic that constitutes The 1975’s target audience and to undermine the genuine, winning songwriting talents that Healy and his bandmates capably demonstrate whenever they resist that persistent urge to show off.

Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.