Blustery And Self-Serious, The 1975’s ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ Offers Nothing Of Substance
'Notes On A Conditional Form' begs the question: What is the point of The 1975?
The 1975 are very, very serious about their music. Not that you’d be able to tell that from listening to a lot of it.
Lead singer Matt Healy sees himself as a prophet, and he’s recruited the assistance of everyone from climate activist Greta Thunberg to uber-cool indie pop stalwart Phoebe Bridgers to prove his credentials both as a spokesperson and a sonic gamechanger.
Read his interviews and his good press without listening to his music, and you’d get the sense that Healy is the burst of intelligence and wit the modern pop machine needs — Mick Jagger with a Political Science degree. That’s his opinion too. For years, he’s projected an aching discomfort with the pop music machine that has crowned him king, and he often speaks of his band as though they have smuggled the avant-garde into the Top 100, a la Talking Heads in the ’80s, selling Van Goghs to sheep.
These are big words, and we practically demand that our popstars use them. But even our most self-satisfied cultural icons tend to have a track record to back them up. Kanye gets to be Kanye because he’s the genius that wrote My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Hell, even Bono wrote himself something of a free pass with ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday.’
Healy has none of these bragging rights. For some time now, his self-promotion conveys the sense he’s describing something that only he can see. The fact of the matter is this: The 1975 produce, at the best of times, dependable and largely mild-mannered electro-pop.
And more than that, the new record is not even fun.
Every now and then, through whims as hard to track as those of the gods, the band release something pretty good. But you’d rank even their greatest hits just under the least likeable Billie Eilish single. And Eilish has the added benefit of humility.
Healy is, in the words of that old adage, writing cheques that his music cannot clear. And nowhere has that been clearer than on the uneven, impossibly self-serious Notes On A Conditional Form.
Barack Obama And Saunas
The album’s most devastating flaw is also the one that hits you first: Healy’s lyrics. “Well, my generation wanna fuck Barack Obama / Living in a sauna with legal marijuana,” Healy sings on ‘People’, the record’s most melodically urgent track, and things don’t get much better from there.
Try as he might, Healy just can’t make his discount Naomi Klein-isms witty, and as the album progresses, his attempts at barbed wordplay get worse. Puns on banana republics and jabs at organised religion are unbelievably sweaty, alternating between the convoluted and the achingly, infuriatingly underwritten.
There’s the sense of great, weighty themes at play. But it’s just that. A sense. ‘The Birthday Party’ drops a confusing reference to sexual coercion allegations levelled against emo band Pinegrove — “They were gonna go to the Pinegrove show / They didn’t know about all the weird stuff” — though by that stage, Healy is essentially playing controversial artist madlibs.
And even when he tries to speak from the heart, he ends up spouting clichés — or worse still, bland understatements. “And I took shit for being quiet during the election / Maybe that’s fair, but I’m a busy guy,” Healy sings at the album’s back-half, his voice flattened into a drawl.
It’s obvious what is going on. The idea, clearly, is to project a kind of stylised repose, burbling a sneaky aside that speaks to the ennui of a generation overloaded with tragedy. But Healy is no languid Belle Epoque-era hero. He’s a Tumblr-famous indie-popstar who can’t penetrate beneath the surface of anything, and his constant attempts to project a persona he’s simply not interesting enough to back-up quickly grow stale.
Sometimes, The 1975 Click
Which is not to say that the album is a total disaster. The wordplay might be flabby, but the melodies are now and then the opposite. As it turns out, ‘People’ isn’t just the album’s best single. It’s also the album’s best track, full stop, and it provides a nice blast of energy that gets Notes On A Conditional Form through its drier spells.
Then there’s ‘Yeah I Know’, a pastiche of Hail To The Thief-era Radiohead that makes up in immediacy what it lacks in originality. It’s not great, exactly, but it certainly keeps things moving — and if there’s one thing the 22-track long Notes desperately needs, it’s a sense of urgency.
It’s not hard to see what The 1975 do best, then: this is a band that are most enjoyable when they are at their most efficient.
It’s not hard to see what The 1975 do best, then: this is a band that are most enjoyable when they are at their most efficient. That’s not news, exactly. ‘Love It If We Made It’ is their best song because it’s their least 1975 song, a straight-up-and-down ballad that never tries to cover its own tracks.
Then there’s the band’s live shows. The best version of The 1975 is the one that swaggers out onstage at gigs, instruments primed and ready, kept tight to their commitment to keeping bodies moving.
Put Notes On A Conditional Form on double speed, lose the instrumental tracks and Healy’s lyrics, and maybe you have something pretty interesting — a foundation to record your own album on top of. But as it is, the thing’s a mess.
Why All The Whinge?
And more than that, it’s not even fun. That, I think, is what Steven Hyden is getting at with his viral, damning review of the new record, one which begins with the writer admitting the band irritate him. “Irritate” is the right word.
After all, thousands of bad albums get dropped every year. But a lot of those bad albums are interesting in their chaos; impressive in their ambition. Notes On A Conditional Form doesn’t even get to earn that underwhelming honour.
Why? Because Matt Healy won’t fucking cheer up. Yes, the world’s evil, corporate greed is rife, and the natural world is collapsing. But what comes next? What do you create out of that destruction; what do you say about it? It’s not enough to simply root about in the muck, looking glum. Something has to happen. Lest you lose the argument for your own existence. Nobody needs The 1975 to explain the world to them. So what is the point of The 1975?
“Oh, please ignore me, I’m just feeling sorry for myself,” Healy sings on Notes, the line tossed off like an aside. Why should he be surprised when most of us take him up on that offer?
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.