The 1975 ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ – Review

26 May

31st May 2018 feels like a lifetime ago for a variety of reasons but it was on that day that The 1975 announced their fourth album’s title ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’. July 2019, still a lifetime ago, was when they dropped the lead single and reiterated that the album ‘had to be out’ before they headlined Reading and Leeds festival on August Bank Holiday Weekend. Now, nine months and a further six singles down the line, following two public delays, brexit, and in the midst of a global pandemic, we finally have the album. ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ is a messy, sprawling, inessant, contradictory, brilliant, unapologetic love letter from The 1975 to the 1975. This is either everything you love, or everything you hate, about the best, and most divisive, band of the past decade.

Sometimes bands give you more when what you really need is less. The 1975 are not one of those bands. I mean obviously they give you ‘more’ (‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ features 22 songs) but the ‘more’ has always kind of been the point. ‘Too much’. Often ‘much to much’. If In the past they’ve been able to cohere their various ideas in to something relatively tight, well that was probably more accidental than anything else. ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ is sprawling by design. It’s consciously a buffet. Its much too muchness is a reflection of the way we consume modern media. As a consequence, you will find The 1975’s heaviest songs plotted alongside their most delicate. Their most introspective songs alongside their most goofy. Their most experimental songs alongside their most accessible.

There are various musical threads that weave through the fabric of the record. George has developed into a sophisticated producer, and his forays into British bass music yield some of the album’s most inventive moments. From ‘Frail State of Mind’ and ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’s anxious, skittering takes on Garage to ‘Shiny Collarbone’s deconstruction of Dancehall and ‘Having No Head’s more obviously indebted homage to Jon Hopkins. A drizzly, late night atmosphere hangs over the album, particularly in these stretches, which compliments Matty’s self conscious introspection.

At the other extreme are a series of gleaming, lovesick guitar songs that ride major chords out of the gloom. ‘You and Me Together Song’ channels late 90s melodic rock to describe both the romance and the realism of being in an adult relationship. ‘We went to winter wonderland and It was shit but we were happy’. It’s one of the least adorned and affected songs they’ve ever produced and it gets you like a lollipop on a hot summer day. ‘Then, Because She Goes’ pulls a similar trick while ‘Roadkill’s sturdier, but no less sugary, take on the genre invokes the highs and lows of life on the road. Here Matty employs a rambling, stream of consciousness style to divulge way more than we needed to know about his ‘tucked up erection’ and the time he ‘pissed myself on a Texan intersection’. It’s not the only song to graphically describe his private bodily functions. The aim, if there is one, seems to be to demystify and deglamorise the rock n roll lifestyle. He is deliberately putting his screw ups and insecurities on show. ‘I never fucked in a car, I was lying’ is how he opens the glorious r&b flecked ‘Nothing Revealed / Everything denied’, skewering the mythic ‘Fucking In a car, shooting heroin’, line from arguably the band’s most iconic song ‘Love it if we Made It’. It’s an overshare, certainly, but reflective of how time and time again Healy positions himself in a candid and unflattering light to lower your defences. The album is ultimately, in part at least, a deconstruction of the rockstar ego. It brushes off any trace of excess or extravagance and hones in on something eminently honest and relatable.

Though the band do bury the lede somewhat. They use the opening two numbers – ‘The 1975’ and ‘People’ – to convey urgent social messages about climate change and political and social disillusionment. But after this the band spend the next eighty minutes looking inward, not outward. ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ feels like an elaboration on the topics first raised on 2016’s ‘I Like it When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It’ (it never gets old writing that). These songs are about feeling too fragile to step outside your house while seeking intimate connections with strangers over the Internet. They’re about falling in love with the wrong person and feeling uncomfortable at parties. About feeling like someone you don’t recognise and, sometimes, not feeling anything at all.

Matty can be pompous and melodramatic. At his worst he gestures at progressive values in a shallow way through a kind of virtue signalling. There’s the careless reference to Pinegrove on ‘The Birthday Party’, for example, and the obscure depiction of a gay Christian’s internal conflict on on ‘JC 2005 God Bless America’ (not to mention opening track ‘The 1975’, which is given over in its entirety to the well meaning but increasingly polarising Greta Thunberg). It’s not that these topics should be out of bounds, rather that he frequently fails to explore them in anything more than a superficial or glib way. But, for his faults, you could never accuse him of lacking integrity. Even in these moments, you can hear him ready to take a pin to his his own ballooning sense of self importance. It’s his sense of humour, as much as his sincerity and self awareness, that ultimately brings him back to Earth.

Better, and more abundant, are the moments of understatement and nuance. ‘Bagsy, Not in the Net’ is, as the title suggests, about a reluctance to do something difficult but necessary for the greater good. Here the lyrics present glimpses of anxiety in action. ‘Try it. Don’t like it. Leaving you here is the thing that I fear so I fight it.’ Similarly, ‘Then Because She Goes’ uses painterly abstractions to convey love’s young blush. ‘You are mine. I’ve been drowning in you. You fracture light again. Beautiful. Please don’t cry. I love you.’ The vocals are processed and flooded below thick guitar strokes which just adds to the sense of sinking. Best of all is ‘Playing on my Mind’ which bridges the gap to the stream of consciousness style of ‘Roadkill’ and ‘The Birthday Party’ with poetic restraint and concision. ‘I won’t buy clothes online cause I get worried about the fit / but that rule don’t apply concerning my relationships…oh these things they have been playing on my mind.’ ‘Too Shy’ (already the band’s biggest and best hit to date) carries this theme through to one end point; a distressed protagonist hunting down free wi-fi late at night so that he can have cyber sex with ‘the girl of your dreams’. It’s funny, it’s smart and it’s irresistible pop music.

I understand why some people call this The 1975’s White Album but that comparison doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. For a start, The Beatles and George Martin meticulously sequenced The White Album so that although it was a diverse assortment of styles and moods it never felt anywhere near as jarring as ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ does. Here the grotty punk of ‘People’ grinds against an actual orchestral interlude, which in turn gives way to an early 00’s UKG homage. There are no smooth transitions. It’s deliberately destabilising. Even more startlingly, the most frequent and disorientating clashes happen within the first half hour. Momentum is frequently and consciously repressed. Other than the aforementioned ‘People’, the album’s opening 20 minutes contain nothing of much forward velocity. ‘Frail State of Mind’, the weakest of the early singles, skips along on a fractured loop and sleepy melody. The Birthday Party has a similarly lollaping rhythm and is full of meandering guitar noodles, causal background chatter and a vocal track that almost seems to tumble out of Matty Healy of its own slinky volition. Amidst the above two tracks is ANOTHER ambient, orchestral interlude. And yet this opening section coheres so much better than it has any right to, building towards an absolutely triumphant middle third. Of course It’s discordant but that feels like the correct setting for ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’.

The album is loud and assertive; at times I wonder if It spreads itself too far, almost obnoxiously, like a city banker on a crowded tube. But in general, I’m enthralled at the audacity and bowled over by the band’s ability to pull it off time and time again. Only a handful of acts have ever had the ambition to attempt anything this wide reaching. But a little much is sometimes made of their stylistic sprawl anyway – this isn’t genre tourism; the band always bend sounds and styles into their own image, whether it’s garage, dancehall, emo, ambient or folk. It still ultimately sounds like The 1975. Anyway, you won’t venture for too long without tripping over a bright DX7 synth or a pin sharp guitar lick. For all their evolution they still retain that essence of the desperately precocious, 80s indebted guitar pop band that first released ‘Sex’. On this occasion they skew back to that sound most explicitly on the hopelessly nostalgic ‘Guys’, an endearing ode to friendship formed and sustained over two decades. On the back cover of the album, the four of them appear, in black and white, backs to a wall, propped up alongside one another. It’s a moving image to accompany a moving record. ‘Guys’ builds to to a climax where Matty repeats over and over ‘you guys are the best thing that ever happened to me.’ After listening to ‘Notes on a Conditional form’, you see exactly what he means.

9.5/10

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