[ALBUM REVIEW] 'NOTES ON A CONDITIONAL FORM' - The 1975
A pastiche of great ideas that work well in theory, but clumsy in execution; the edgiest pop rock kids in town still show great promise with a handful of amazing cuts.
RELEASE DATE: 22 MAY 2020 GENRE: INDIE ROCK / INDIE POP / R&B / HOUSE / AMBIENT / INDIE FOLK / SYNTH POP / POP ROCK / DREAM POP/ LABEL: DIRTY HIT RECORDS
The 1975’s latest album is riddled with unmet expectations; a tug-of-war between lacklustre attempts and the band’s essentially laudable endeavour at maturity. For some context, I have been relatively indifferent to half of the 1975’s discography, but then found a new appreciation for this ‘2010s-version-of-boy-bands-with-instruments-only-edgier’ after their 2018 album Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. Even then, none of their pre-2018 projects did anything for me as much as BIIOR did. It’s a mixed bag with some wonderful gems and always feels like opening a box of chocolates. Its main weakness being the conceptual incoherence and inconsistencies, only vaguely put together by some ‘general theme of modern love’ (‘The Man Who Married A Robot’ being the most obvious of that - heck look at the title). Sometimes individual instrumental palettes leave me satisfied, but most of the time it breaks either into a spluttering mess of farcical left-field choices or extremely vapid nothings. Side note: ‘Sincerity Is Scary’ is the perfect balance between those two. All of which brings me to their latest project: as much as the bands’ growth is clear, their newfound maturity doesn’t always stick its landing in Notes On A Conditional Form. I know it’s unfair and probably uncalled for, but I feel like Matt Healy’s recent attempt at trying to show his support for the protests against police brutality and racism in America while linking the tweet to his song as an inadvertent self-promo is a hilarious example of how the album has good intentions botched by half-sincere executions (*cough*Maybe because ‘Sincerity Is Scary’ *cough*). Overall, there are more interesting ideas to me that gel together better in Notes On A Conditional Form than the previous project.
Alas, the curse of expectations. The singles that came out in the release cycle of this album really made me buy the ticket for the hype train. I didn’t know how much you could pack revolutionary zeal into a soft ambient track until I heard ‘‘The 1975 (NOACF Intro)’ which uses a Greta Thunberg speech on top of a momentum-building yet serene production. Then there was the punk track ‘People’ which had every opportunity to be cringeworthy coming from a band with their reputation, but actually turned out to be pretty gut-busting and riveting. Also, the beautiful satirical collaboration with a current favourite indie folk songwriter of mine, Phoebe Bridgers, with ‘Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America’. All of this makes the fact that the album turned out to have more electronic, folk house and pop rock tracks while totally abandoning their punk sound a bit of a downer.
Still, when you consider all the variables, NOACF is a stronger statement than the original. As the second part in the band's series, Music for Cars, the album’s chronicling of their experiences of growing up English in today’s world while being surrounded by an eclectic array of pop culture has some very touching, poignant moments. The band sheds their old persona of ‘sexy, lusty, edginess’ for a more vulnerable self-awareness riddled with insecurities. Within the whopping album length of 1 hour and 20 minutes, sometimes it still sounds like whining, other times you get memorable opuses. Sometimes you get ‘faux-sophistication’, other times quiet layered expressions: both sonically and lyrically.
Many of the current criticisms toward this album revolve around the persona purgatory that the 1975 inhabits in between delivering songs in the category of Bigger Picture Commentary and “How-Do-I-Tell-My-Crush-I-Like-Them”. However, personally, the cheesy parts of NOACF are actually its strength. The song ‘Then Because She Goes’ is one of them. Reminiscent of songs from the pop rock days of British bands like Busted and McFly, the track also has a shoegazing inflexion to it, like Sunny Sundae Smile-era My Bloody Valentine. Speaking of Busted, ‘Me and You Together Song’s introduction feels like it’s taken straight out of ‘What I Go To School For’. Other examples of sentimentality being the strength of this album include the homey synth-pop track ‘Guys’, that Matt Healy writes about his bandmates which is a beautiful ode to friendship ("The moment we started forming a band/ Was the best thing that ever happened"). I have no idea why this leaves me teary-eyed, but I guess it's because I haven't heard a really good song about platonic friendships in a long time.
‘Tonight (I Wish Was Your Boy)’ is the soulful descendant to ‘Sincerity is Scary’, with a beautiful, soft piano ballad introduction sampling J-Funk star, Hiroshi Sato’s ‘Goodbye’ in the infectious synth-riffs and a pitched vocal sample from The Temptations’ ‘Just My Imagination’. ‘Tonight’ showcases Matt Healy’s forte as a pop crooner especially in delivering such an earnest love song (“And I told her‚ "Some things have their time/How can I be yours if you're not mine?"/She said, "They should take this pain/And give it a name").
Another ‘Sincerity is Scary’-esque song is ‘The Birthday Party’; with coy banjos and a production palette that reminds me of BROCKHAMPTON. Singing about his struggle with addiction, the song is a testament to the band's evolution from being “hedonist pretty boys” to “vulnerable adults with opinions”. The way the song is arranged around wholesome horns but sombre lyrics make this like ‘Sincerity Is Scary’, although this one is a little subpar, production-wise. There’s also the sweet and personal song that Matt performed with his father, Tim Healy where the 1975 exhibits beauty in simplicity. Just softly processed vocals and a piano serenade is all you need to make this track glow.
Other features of NOACF are the instrumental interludes. There are way more house or UK garage-influenced tracks in the album, functioning as chapter stops in the tracklisting, to varying degrees of effectiveness - some bordering on the indulgent, other times inoffensive, and once or twice, really exciting. One of the best instrumentals is the self-titled introduction. I love the ascending xylophone-esque sounds, like water droplets from an almost-closed faucet, that sounds at once melodic and random. The subtle drone-like swelling sandwiched between the lyrics and the xylo sounds creats a suspenseful texture. Maybe it’s because Greta Thunberg is speaking about the urgency of climate change via her Extinction Rebellion movement over the music, but the production gives me the impression of a Koyaanisqatsi montage, a nature documentary where flowers bloom in hyperlapse. Already on its own, the speech is powerful and contains its own music (“To do your best is not good enough, you have to do the seemingly impossible”), but how her words complement the music is beautiful too. You have moments like when the volume of the instruments slowly increase as you hear Greta mumble in Swedish to her producer in the background, the slight heavenly adjustment to the production for when she gets optimistic as she says “homo sapiens do not fail”, or the way it stops when she says “it is time to rebel”. As a piece of spoken word music, it’s surprisingly nuanced and subtly evocative.
“People” coming second in the tracklist is a genius move: like a sudden flip of perspective, where the album moves away from an elevated podium of activism, toward the rougher side of modern life ("Well, I know it feels pointless and you don't have any money
But we're all just gonna try our fucking best") propelled by a freaking catchy, abrasive, punk anthem - a turn of genre never explored by the band. The 1975 does not pick up on this sound ever again for the rest of the tracklist. Odd, considering that it seems like an amazing counterpoint to a substantive introduction, like we’re at a rally with speakers and protesters of different temperaments. But because they never pick it up again it loses all sense of belonging and coherence.
‘The End (Music for Cars)’ is another cool interlude - truly the only cinematic moment, with strings and soaring synths, in the album that’s also nostalgic and introspective as the song title refers to their 2013 EP, ‘Music for Cars’. My favourite instrumental is ‘Yeah I Know’ - a good buffet of glitchy experimentation, arranged to a tee. ‘Yeah I Know’ is probably the best musically in terms of‘The 1975’s breadth since every production and instrumentation choice in this track feels purposeful instead of just filling in gaps where music should be. Another favourite instrumental is ‘Having No Head’, where drummer George Daniel shows off his production work splendidly throughout, from the ethereal pizzicato strings to the intense modular synth and bass-oriented switch-up in the second half. A fucking amazing electronic rave tribute. ‘Shiny Collarbone’ is another great jungle-influenced track featuring the vocals of Jamaican musician, Cutty Ranks; another tribute to 90s UK rave culture. Then you have the relatively inoffensive or uneventful electronic tracks and interludes that distract from the album such as 'Bagsy Not In Net Yet', which has a promising string and bass instrumentation but trails off pretty fast, ‘Frail State of Mind’, ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’, and ‘Streaming’ (which is the dullest). There’s so much inconsistency when it comes to this high-concept narrative-based approach that I question its necessity in the track-list. Based upon the 1975 interviews and write-ups I’ve read (one of them here), the eclectic nature of NOACF is meant to reflect the colourful London childhood that they’ve experienced; including the diverse nature of that nostalgia: like flicking through the radio station and being exposed to a large variety of pop culture while juxtaposing that to the insecurities of growing up.
A lot of it unravels into a messy concoction of such opposing ideas that often leave barely any emotional impact. Maybe a tighter concept would’ve tied everything together nicely. Maybe focusing on specific genres or sound palettes would’ve been better. It’s like the band is trying to make me see the movie that’s playing in their head but very few scenes make sense to me, even if they’re individually appealing.
Humour, satire and self-awareness make up for a lot of these shortcomings. ‘In Jesus Christ 2005’, the band’s collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers gives us the most lyrically beautiful song in the album. There are no production gimmicks here, only good songwriting with a few sprinkles of glitchy motifs as a thematic nod to the album. Their vocal chemistry is like water droplets forming rain-clouds as they come together seamlessly in creating a sombre, satirical song. The way Matt sings "I'm in love with Jesus Christ/He's so nice" and Phoebe Bridgers singing about masturbating to a girl he has a crush on next door with a hint of candour and quite desperation - tres magnifique. A collaboration I never knew I wanted. The horns and the “ooohs” going on in the distance are wonderful too while the lyrics speak to the hypocrisy of religious guilt, the self-hating that comes with hateful people, and the struggles a person on the verge of change goes through when it comes to things like sexuality or faithlessness. The cherry on top is the song referencing one of my favourite albums of all time, ‘In The Aeroplane Over the Sea’ by Neutral Milk Hotel (“Searching for the plane, in the sea”). ‘Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America’ is dark comedy - where the funny hits you hard with a little reality. ‘Roadkill’ is another ‘stand-up-comedy’ song running over a bluesy, honky-tonk progression with funny lines like being caught with a “tucked-up erection” and references to a “fun knife”. I love the confessional nature of this song, as Matt Healy sings about the controversy surrounding their silence during the recent UK election, (from which they clumsily 'made up' for later with a tone-deaf promo tie-in for their own song while supporting the Black Lives Matter protest), but this is the kind of attitude that makes me a bit skeptical. I mean, he seems pretty dismissive about these things while also trying to shed light on its importance (?), e.g. the lyrics "And I took shit for being quiet during the election
/Maybe that's fair, but I'm a busy guy". In the end, the sarcasm still works as a bit comical bit though, even if it's occasionally, awkwardly, misplaced.
These explorations into political expressions can sometimes feel like endearing instances of self-effacement and humility. In ‘Nothing Real/Everything Denied’, a soulful R&B cut in the album, the piano shimmers beautifully with the choral vocals as it covers Matt Healy’s exploration of his own attitude towards the world - such as the ease of falling into apathy because it’s simpler to care about things that actually upset you. The hook “Life feels like a lie/I need something to be true” is great on top of the washed out guitars conclude the song and even the quasi-rap part plays out pretty well.
'If You're Too Shy Let me Know' has a great intro - I love the way it transitions from pretty ambience into a 80s New Wave/synth-pop banger with triumphant guitar riffs. The song is catchy as hell and has some good ideas, diving into topics of intimacy in an online world, but it feels like one of those 1975 cuts that overestimate its profoundness like 50% of A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. The arrangement and production are magnificent however, including that extremely cheesy sax solo at the end that hits me straight at the heart for some reason. ‘Playing On My Mind’ is slightly more forgettable hence it has not been playing on my mind lately but it’s a pretty decent folk love song featuring Phoebe Bridgers in backing vocals again, and again beautifully sung by both of them. It also has one of my favourite lyrics in NOACF: “But I won’t get clothes online 'cause I get worried about the fit/But that rule doesn't apply concerning my relationships” and "But he said things that interest me exist outside of space and time/Now, I know I should've left it, but who says that? What a sigh"
The absolute worst track is ‘What Should I Say’. FKA Twigs’ feature is wasted on what seems like Matt Healy parodying bland top 40s party pop, dancehall tunes with faint EDM undertones. Although it definitely has more substance than most of those songs, the vocal effects and every production choice on this track feels irritating. Such a let down since it comes right after ‘Tonight’, a vastly superior song in the track-list. Even on the third listen, I'm still asking myself, "What on earth is this song doing here"
NOACF is significantly better than its predecessor in ambition. Although there seems to be a lot more tracks on this project that I like more than dislike, it’s personally hard to get over the undulating rollercoaster of quality that happens when too many disparate ideas are brought together by a tenuous theme. The bright side to all of this is the band still expanding their range and finding new sounds while adhering to their own pop sensibilities. Hopefully in the future, the 1975 comes up with something with a little more focus and direction. Instead with NOACF, you get really good ideas abandoned after one song (RIP ‘People’) and really weak ones for stretching out for too long. This might come off as me complaining that this didn’t become a punk album, but really the foundation of my whining is based upon it not becoming an ‘anything’ album. Just a smattering of good tracks you can listen to if you can withstand the nondescript ones. Although, you know, the more I listen to it, the more I think the good songs that are in it makes it worth checking out.
The 1975, People, The Birthday Party, Jesus Christ, Then Because She Goes, Nothing Is Real/Everything Denied, Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy), Having No Head, Guys
LEAST FAV TRACK:
What Should I Say
3.5 / 5