Review: The 1975 – Notes On A Conditional Form

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The band’s conclusion to its ‘Music For Cars’ duology is mammoth and schizophrenic -- sometimes to a fault.

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The 1975 have become one of the more divisive pop groups of the 2010s. Between frontman Matty Healy’s polarising outspokenness and the group’s ever-shifting sonic identity and use of pastiche, their three records up until this point have proven to be oddities in the modern landscape of popular music. Whether it’s the straightforward, whiny pop-pock on their debut, the expansive synths on I Like It When You Sleep… or the eclecticism of A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, The 1975 have evaded easy labelling, while garnering both a loyal fanbase and a host of naysayers who dismiss the lyrical pretentiousness and self-reference as waffle. Notes On A Conditional Form complicates things even further.

There is a lot to unpack with this record. Spanning eighty minutes and twenty-two tracks, it is the group’s longest project to date, and by a long mile. Fortunately, it does not feel its length, but this actually ends up being one of its downfalls – in fact, it feels oddly brief. For something so mammoth in conception, Notes On A Conditional Form never quite seems to get a grasp on what it’s shooting for. And this isn’t always a bad thing; the record never sags or feels boring and stays pleasant and creative throughout its runtime as a minimum, but between so many songs, influences and topics, Notes feels curiously unsubstantial.

This is not to critique the band too harshly, though, as I think a lot of what’s here does work. We don’t really have Matty’s sardonic, playful style of lyricism on full display as it has been in the past (save for a few of the lead singles and ‘Roadkill’); it’s replaced for a much more defeated sense of ambience. Where before Healy has dismantled his ego and persona through humorous, playful melody, he instead does it here through more honest lyrics and downplayed delivery. In this sense, the band sound their most egoless and vulnerable on Notes. ‘Playing With My Mind’ is one of the highlights of the record and illustrates this, with Matty discussing conflicting thoughts on top of a downbeat instrumental in a way that is particularly emotive and touching. This can be heard too in the rolling, almost spoken-word ballad ‘The Birthday Party’, which acts as one of the album’s most appealing and strangely addictive tracks. Even ‘Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America’, which deftly discusses religion and sexuality and is filtered through the mind of a character, speaks on conflict and depression. In this sense, the album wields the perfect title.

Amidst this, we have the rousing throwback roarer ‘Me & You Together Song’, heavy-80s ‘If You’re Too Shy’ and highlight ‘Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied’ to pick up the mood, the last of which blends gospel and jazz with spoken word for some very likeable results. Also lining the tracklist is more instrumental work than on the band’s previous record, with a heavy emphasis on influence from house music. ‘Yeah I Know’ is a favourite of these, with the brief lyrics telling of buying cars and living on mars over a muted synth line which is catchy and enjoyable. ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’ also fits this bill, with Matty singing softly over crisp beats and subdued piano, ‘Shiny Collarbone’ and ‘Having No Head’ continuing this through UK garage-inspired instrumentals that work on a sense of synthetic groove over anything else. While this is well and good, tracks such as these can feel insignificant in the context of the record’s pacing. Going from the Refused-esque ‘People’ to the sugary sweet ‘Frail State of Mind’ and then to the shoegaze-autotune of ‘Then Because She Goes’ (a charming cut) contributes to a very schizophrenic experience that feels as though The 1975 haven’t fused influences as much as they have lumped them together for brief and alternating spells. For a group typically so adept at constructing an album and blending sounds with effortlessness, the clumsy amalgamation of electronics, acoustic and dreamy rock feels like a far cry from a 1975 album’s usual power.

The record’s back third (ish) reaches quite a spacey and reflective space — something for which I’m personally a sucker. The songwriting is defeated, pensive and downplayed, even amidst garish production. This portion helps the album feel more honest and humble, as Matty is slightly more direct with his feelings. I love the aforementioned ‘Playing On My Mind’, with the anxiety-induced ‘What Should I Say’ working well to follow up its ideas. The emotive “do you wanna leave at the same time?” refrain of ‘Bagsy Not in Net’ is also pretty powerful amidst the song’s booming drums and singing strings, and the muffled lyrics contribute to a feeling of detachment that works in favour of a more melancholy vibe. ‘Don’t Worry’ is a lovely ballad made interesting with synthetic singing and jazzy chords, feeling at least somewhat like a culmination of the many sounds of the album; I love the simple piano juxtaposed with warped vocals. Closer ‘Guys’ follows this up to act as an epilogue that sees Healy pay credit to his bandmates in a well-judged soft rock tune. The record ends on a contemplative, empathetic note.

And so, as is the case with a few of the band’s records – at least for me – Notes will likely need some growing time. The jumbled songwriting and aesthetic may well come together over the next few months of dipping in and out of the project, as it represents an alteration in approach and, somewhat, philosophy for the group. There are some really excellent moments and standout tracks, but they are buried in an extensive tracklist whose pacing does not quite lend itself to the muted collage which is given and only skimpily toys with its sounds rather than diving into them. At least for now, then, Notes On A Conditional Form is likeable, shimmering and emotive, but also ugly in assemblance, somewhat incohesive and wholly schizophrenic. I admire the record in conception, but its wandering leaves something to be desired when viewed as a culmination of the band’s particularly great work over the last decade. A grower? Perhaps. A strange listen? Definitely. A future classic? I have no idea.

The 1975’s Notes On A Conditional Form is out now via Dirty Hit and Polydor Records.

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Digital Culture Editor 2020/21, Film and History student.

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