The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Less Navel Gazey Than It Has Any Right to Be
Published May 22, 2020The 1975 have built a career taking familiar sounds and pushing them into unfamiliar places. It's a thread that winds throughout their discography, from the mid-oughts indie of their debut, the '80s pop of I like it when you sleep… and the modern electropop of 2018's A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. But their latest, Notes on a Conditional Form, is the first time the band have trained their skills on themselves.
Notes comes billed as a companion to its predecessor. Making up the "Music for Cars" era, singer Matt Healy has described the pair as the sound of "dance music in the UK, smoking weed in cars and nighttime." The ghosts of Craig David, Burial and SBTRKT certainly haunt the record, the shuffling beats of UK garage and splintering strains of UK bass echoing across the record. They even flip the Temptations' "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)" for "Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)" and enlist dancehall legend Cutty Ranks for "Shiny Collarbone." But like so many of the band's past triumphs, these are reference points, not homages.
Overtop of this foundation, the English quartet take listeners on a deep dive into Healy's psyche. The record's intro is a bait and switch; picking up where "Love It If We Made It" left off, they begin with a more outward-looking worldview. The latest version of their self-titled theme track that opens every record samples young climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Once again, personal issues crept into the recording process. Where A Brief Inquiry was backgrounded by Healy's stint in rehab, Notes comes after a split with his girlfriend of four years, an event that would send anyone, let alone a famously self-aware rock star, into a tailspin. Even as simultaneously intriguing and horrifying as a 1975 "global citizen" record sounds, this quickly give way to deeper introspection and deconstruction of their own myth. "Frail State of Mind," an unintentional pandemic anthem about social anxiety, interpolates their track "TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME." They even straight up sample themselves on "Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied," where Healy picks apart the lies and misconceptions about himself from past lyrics. Notes might have a clubber's mind, but its beats come from an emo heart.
The late Roy Hargrove again lends his talents, as do FKA Twigs and Phoebe Bridgers, on the sarcastic but beautiful ballad "Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America." The journey from the universal to the personal culminates with "Guys," the album's closer and an ode to the band themselves. The track pines for the simplicity of the group's earliest days, mates playing music for the love of it and one another: "Man, they were the golden times. They were the best of my life."
It really should all come across as far more navel gazey than it does. Healy and co.'s ability to bring listeners into their world, to make us care about their rock star problems is a gift few songwriters possess. Still, at 22 tracks and 81 minutes long, the record is, like all the band's work, bloated. There are at least two too many instrumentals, and songs that stand apart on their own start to bleed together near then end. But the ambition and execution can't be denied. This is the 1975 operating at the peak of their powers. (Dirty Hit)