The 1975 called my bluff.
I don’t mean my bluff specifically. I refer to anyone who felt (as I did) that 2020’s Notes On A Conditional Form was the band “at their most bloated and self-important.” I certainly was not alone in thinking that the fourth album by The 1975 signified a nadir for the swaggering British pop-rock band. During an endless 10-month promotional rollout preceding the release, frontman Matty Healy repeatedly wrote checks his artistic and intellectual abilities could not possibly cash, boldly proclaiming that The 1975 was “the definitive band” of the 2010s and patting himself on the back for his alleged prescience in foreseeing a global pandemic via a handful of vague and mealy-mounted lyrical references on the new record. When Conditional Form finally dropped, it fell well short of justifying such bluster, unfolding instead as one of the worst sequenced and overly padded superstar albums in recent memory, a garish slog choked by tiresome spoken-word tracks and forgettable genre experiments that blotted out a smattering of nice pop tunes.
At the close of my review, I issued a challenge: “At this point, a more noble experiment for The 1975 would be to write an album where every song is good, or at least necessary. They haven’t done that yet.” Lest I be accused of Healy-esque self-delusion, this was not an uncommon request. A band that — at its best — specializes in addictive singles that lean shamelessly on provocation and retro ’80s signifiers, The 1975 over time have been miscast as an “important” band with something meaningful to say about online culture. In reality, Healy has almost nothing original to offer on the subject. (Social media connects us while simultaneously driving us apart — a garden-variety reply guy will tell you the same.) He’s a pop star, not a philosopher. The misguided insistence to the contrary has indulged his band’s penchant for making overlong and overstuffed albums that detract from their core strength as a fun and trashy radio band.
That might sound heretical to The 1975’s devoted fanbase. But it appears that Healy and his bandmates have come around to this way of thinking, based on their new album out this week, Being Funny In A Foreign Language. It is, dare I say, a relatively modest affair, composed of 11 songs guided mainly by the band’s poppiest instincts. (Put another way: The bulk of the album resembles “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You).”) I’ll go one step further and declare that every song, per request, is good and definitely necessary. There are no lectures from Greta Thunberg set against ambient soundscapes this time around. Every track breezes by and goes down more or less enjoyably. Being Funny In A Foreign Language sounds like the Pretty Woman soundtrack if it had been composed exclusively of Roxette and Go West songs, possibly the highest compliment I can pay to The 1975. It is an album that has won back at least one former fan/current detractor. Cue the “Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III” GIF. Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.
My unexpected enjoyment of Being Funny In A Foreign Language immediately prompted a series of questions in my mind: What about the people who have never strayed from this band? The ones who insist that making overlong and overstuffed albums is the point of The 1975? Does removing some of the self-importance also take away their sense of purpose? Is a “better” album by The 1975 actually less entertaining?
I suspect that my bi-polar feelings about The 1975 have leaned positive lately due in part to the rise of Harry Styles, the reigning Ken doll of British pop, whose relentless nice-guy act has made me re-evaluate the utility of a rakish troll like Healy. Unlike Styles, whose aggressive geniality grows more grating the higher his star soars, Healy isn’t shy about deliberately making himself look like a cad (or merely an airhead) in his songs. The first single from Being Funny, the Bon Iver-like pocket symphony “Part Of The Band,” immediately laid down the gauntlet for reactionaries, with Healy dropping a bevy of cringe-inducing groaners about “vaccinista tote bag chic baristas” and “communista keisters writing about their ejaculations” before inevitably launching into some trendy self-examination: “Am I ironically woke? The butt of my joke? Or am I just some post-coke, average, skinny bloke calling his ego imagination?”
Admittedly, I took the bait when that song dropped this summer. But when heard “Part Of The Band” in the context of Being Funny In Foreign Language, it made a lot more sense. On the album, Healy mostly ditches the messianic “spokesman of a generation” posturing that made Notes On A Conditional Form so insufferable. In the process, he’s made it easier to buy into the idea that he’s self-aware about The 1975’s most absurd excesses. Take the album’s first song, titled “The 1975” in the manner of all the band’s lead-off album tracks, in which he references QAnon and riffs on doom-scrolling and the internet’s negative impact on the body images of teenage girls. On paper, it could be interpreted as yet another example of Healy lunging in vain for topical profundity. But Healy’s musings are set to music that so obviously rips off LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” that it can only be taken as a sly, tongue-in-cheek joke.
Even funnier is the album’s last song, the quasi-Americana number “When We Are Together,” which I can’t help hearing as a parody of the innocuous folk-pop “good boyfriend” songs that make up Styles’ blockbuster 2022 LP, Harry’s House. “I like socks with sandals, she’s more into scented candles,” Healy sings, echoing the bland suburban rom-com fantasies that recur throughout Styles’ catalogue. Then comes the kicker: “It was poorly handled, the day we both got canceled because I’m a racist and you’re some kind of slag.”
For those still wary about wading back in with The 1975: Healy only says “canceled” twice on the record. For the most part, this a collection of pop tunes about love, as evidenced by songs like “Happiness,” “I’m In Love With You,” and “Looking For Somebody (To Love),” which stick to the band’s usual electro-pop wheelhouse. The decision to work with producer Jack Antonoff might have read initially as a transparent bid to retrench after a polarizing misfire — Healy himself has seemed defensive about it in interviews – but they prove to be a natural match. Antonoff, after all, is a derivative but undeniably skilled craftsman whose laser-focus on reproducing big-ticket, late-20th-century pop sounds suits The 1975 well, whether it’s the blue-eyed soul of “All I Need To Hear” or the blurry Britpop balladry of “About You.”
But what about the nagging question regarding this band’s sense of purpose? The paradox of Being Funny In A Foreign Language is that it’s both the most consistent 1975 album and the least significant. There are no misses here, but there are also no smash hits. For a band accustomed to taking big swings, a record of doubles and triples might seem underwhelming. Of course, The 1975 seem hardwired against ever delivering a completely satisfying album. For now, I’ll settle for them being a little less annoying.