The 1975 doesn’t make albums of easy-digestible indie pop/rock, opting instead for sprawling, genre-hopping explorations in grandiosity and excess rooted in the most shimmery of ’80s pop — and the band‘s new record Notes on a Conditional Form is the most challenging yet.
The reward, reached at the end of a sprawling 22-track, one-hour-and-twenty-minute experience that is at times overwhelming and emotionally heavy, is hearing a band fully in charge of its own destiny.
There’s a plausible scenario in which Matty Healy and band mates Adam Hann, Ross MacDonald and George Daniel don’t have the freedom with which to craft an album like this, a massive artistic statement meant to be experienced as opposed to a handful of big hits packaged with album tracks.
There are those that would deride the music of The 1975 for the musicians’ abundant attempts at crafting Very Important Music in capital letters, Healy emoting earnestly on everything all at once, compositions bursting at the seams with glistening production and an overall feeling that flirts with self-importance. That’s been the case of the band’s music throughout its previous albums, and it’s now it’s even bigger and grander in scale.
Notes on a Conditional Form was delayed first from February to April and then pushed back to May 22, after the group premiered an introductory track … a five-minute spoken-word message from environmental activist Greta Thunberg.
“People” was the album’s lead single, a fired-up punk song that sounds absolutely nothing like anything else on the record and affirmed the band’s stance as one of the most intriguing acts in the world when it was premiered in August 2019. The tone of its music video matched the song’s overall feel, adopting more of a My-Chemical-Romance-by-way-of-Marilyn-Manson tone than you might expect.
Notes on a Conditional Form is an expansive, unpredictable and self-reflective collection of songs touching on indie-pop, electronic-tinged instrumental interludes, Auto-Tuned experimental bits and even reggae.
Some of the more “expected” pop/rock songs find the group in familiar and engaging territory, such as with the Tears for Fears-ish “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know),” which features a particularly pleasant saxophone blow-out toward the end:
Another pre-release single, “Me & You Together Song” has the requisite cascading guitars cranked up to 11, the guys resembling a ’90s-styled house party band in its video:
Many say the concept of the album died with the advent of digital streaming platforms and the dwindling attention spans of music listeners influenced by the immediacy of mobile devices and our technological age.
And they’re probably right about that, which makes the thematic and structural effort put into Notes on a Conditional Form that much more noteworthy.
It’s our communal reliance on technology, in fact, that Healy focuses on throughout his band’s music, and that topic du jour is back on Notes on a Conditional Form. Take the video for “Frail State of Mind” as a very literal example of the vulnerabilities of our contemporary age:
The same goes for “The Birthday Party,” its video an animated exploration of anxiety and stress through Healy’s own eyes:
“Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” a song with a preposterous title, finds Healy joined by Phoebe Bridgers, who offers a verse of her own, the whole thing sounding a bit in the vein of Bright Eyes and Sufjan Stevens while discussing the concept of forbidden love:
I’m in love, but I’m feeling low
For I am just a footprint in the snow
I’m in love with a boy I know
But that’s a feeling I can never show
Among the adventures in unexpected directions is the memorable “Roadkill,” its rootsy Americana vibe presenting a change of course at the album’s halfway point, Healy’s lyrics about the band traveling through the heart of the United States as confessional as always:
They’re playing your song on the radio station
Mugging me off all across the nation
If you don’t eat then you’ll never grow
Should’ve learned that quite a while ago
Also confessional is “Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied,” which features the self-referential line I never fucked in a car, I was lying, panning back to the lyrics of “Love it if We Made It,” a standout track from 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships.
“Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)” is another stylistic curve ball, its reggae influence coming out of left field and sampling the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” … and working quite well, enough to make it a highlight of the record that would have made for a solid single.
“Shiny Collarbone” sounds like a club anthem for the sweaty, pulsating English nightlife scene of the 1990s — imagine hearing this on the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. The same applies to the propulsive “Having No Head,” a few track later.
“Bagsy Not in Net” is structured around the synth line of Christopher Cross’ classic “Sailing,” another unexpected surprise:
The album, which really takes on a different feeling if split into a “first half” and “second half,” comes to an end with the earnest ode-to-friends of “Guys,” a thank-you from Healy to his band mates for … forming a band with him, wrapping up the record on a positive, uplifting note — a far cry from the anxiety and concerns of the human condition expressed repeatedly to that point.
If you’re feeling confused reading all of this, it’s OK. Notes on a Conditional Form is an exhausting listen, one that requires a great deal of patience for its running time, and summing up the record in a few paragraphs is equally as challenging. The jumps around in style and song structure probably aren’t for everybody, either, especially those just looking for more palatable hits like “Chocolate” or “Somebody Else.”
Four albums into their career, though, The 1975’s trajectory is something else entirely. This is a band confronting global stardom and the expectations of an audience in the tens of millions head-on — and trying to do something bigger and more meaningful with it, no matter the consequences.
Will it work for everyone? Surely not … but if it did, The 1975 wouldn’t be The 1975.
Stream Notes on a Conditional Form below, via Spotify.