No band I ostensibly like annoys me more than The 1975. They annoy me so much that I can probably no longer accurately describe myself as a fan. If this is where I exit the bandwagon, it might as well be with their most bloated and self-important album, the forthcoming 22-track, 80-minute Notes On A Conditional Form, due out Friday.
Before we get into that, however, let’s revisit happier times: I remember being a defender of this band after their infamous performance on Saturday Night Live in 2016. I truly got a kick out of Matty Healy’s “non-satirical Aldous Snow” shtick — the naked torso, the leather pants, the crotch-thrusting, the tongue-wagging. Here was a guy who was seemingly smart enough to realize that he was the frontman of an enjoyably dumb pop-rock band, and he was having an absolute blast with it. They were like a hipper, more self-aware Imagine Dragons. Their reach exceeded their grasp, sure, but perhaps by reaching too far they would eventually stumble upon greatness.
Unfortunately, The 1975 had already hit their peak. Their second and best album, I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It — I even found that album title charming back then! — set a template that each subsequent 1975 album has followed. For all of the talk about this band’s eclecticism, and how it supposedly reflects the omnivorous musical tastes of an entire generation, their last three albums are actually strikingly similar. You start with a core of three to five singles that are essentially homages to the most critically reputable music of the ’80s and ’90s. And then you surround those bangers with a whole lot of filler that falls into one of three categories: middling R&B ballads, sleepy ambient “soundscape” pieces, and hit-or-miss copycat genre exercises.
This is not a successful formula for producing albums that are worth playing from beginning to end. It is, however, effective for a group that is interested more in signifiers than originality. The 1975’s most praised track, “Love It If We Made It” from 2018’s An Inquiry Into Online Relationships, is the ultimate example of this. By piling so many references to Internet culture ephemera on top of each other, “Love It If We Made It” seems to say something profound about all of this without actually ever saying anything at all.
It’s kind of genius, creating such an irresistible and intellectually blank canvas for culture writers to project their pet thinkpiece themes. (Full disclosure: I fell for it, too.) But what is the actual point of view of “Love It If We Made It”? What does this song say beyond “we’re all screwed on the Internet,” which frankly is something anybody on social media can tell you? Isn’t it just … a bunch of memes? This will sound like backhanded praise but I truly mean it as a compliment: The 1975 are extremely good at being superficial. When they stick to that, they can be very good. Get in and out with a perfect piece of four-minute fluff like “Love Me” or “The Sound” and I’m thoroughly delighted. However, The 1975 now see themselves as deep, and it has completely undermined what was so likable about them in the beginning.
During the album cycle for Notes On A Conditional Form — which kicked off 10 months ago (!) with the release of the album’s spoken-word opening track featuring environmental activist Greta Thunberg — Healy has come off like a man high on his own supply of recent music-critic plaudits. He has matter-of-factly declared The 1975 “the definitive band” of the 2010s, complimenting himself on “fucking up mainstream discourse” with his art while chastising musicians who play in bands that aren’t massively successful, because “it’s not aspirational; it’s a hobby.”
Now, as an avowed fan of artists like Billy Corgan and Noel Gallagher, I’m not averse to arrogant rock-star behavior. I tend to find bombastic interviews highly amusing. But even at their most delusional, Corgan never believed that “Tonight, Tonight” was going to end global warming, nor did Gallagher ever claim that “Wonderwall” was “fucking up the mainstream discourse.” They were both, in other words, smart enough to realize that they were in enjoyably dumb pop-rock bands, and acted accordingly.
Healy, however, has come to see himself as an oracle for our troubled times. “Upon reflection, there was an almost eerie feeling when recording it,” he whispered to Vulture about the making of Conditional Form. To GQ, he mused, “I suppose the question is: Can this center really hold? I’m not prophesying or predicting anything. I’m just saying: This shit feels fucking weird now”
It sure does, Matty. But after spending some time with Notes On A Conditional Form, I’m at a loss to pinpoint many (if any) moments from this album that feel eerie or predictive or even accidentally insightful about life under quarantine. If I’m feeling charitable, I could point to the skittering, low-key social anxiety ode “Frail State Of Mind,” which opens with the lyric, “Go outside? Seems unlikely.” If I’m feeling very charitable, I could also include another skittering, low-key electro-pop song, “Yeah I Know,” and this rather nondescript lyrical aside: “Time feels like it’s changed, I don’t feel the same.” Otherwise, the most explicitly political lyric on this album comes in the unconvincing fake-punk song, “People,” in which Healy screams (with a welcome lack of enunciation), “Well, my generation wanna fuck Barack Obama / Living in a sauna with legal marijuana.” Eerie, indeed.
If Healy isn’t exactly envisioning our dystopian future, what is he writing? Rom-coms. Many of these songs are excuses for Healy to play the lovable rapscallion in pursuit of a comely object of affection, like the self-explanatory “Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)” or the amiably bouncy “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know),” which literally sounds like a rip-off of the Pretty Woman soundtrack. “I see her online, all the time, I’m trying not to stare ‘down there,’ while she talks about her tough time,” Healy purrs. “Girl of your dreams, know what I mean?”
I don’t have a problem with rom-coms. I like rom-coms! It’s just that Hugh Grant doesn’t claim to be Noam Chomsky when he makes Notting Hill. But the main fault of Notes On A Conditional Form isn’t that the lyrics don’t come to delivering on the pompous boasts from Healy’s interviews. It’s that the album is so preposterously lumpy, with way too many songs that simply don’t need to be there. The first half is particularly murderous: It starts with that Greta Thunberg track, which goes on (and on) for five minutes. Then it’s the shouty “People,” then an orchestral interlude, then the pleasant but sluggish “Frail State Of Mind,” then another orchestral interlude.
By my estimation, it takes about a half-hour for Conditional Form to gain momentum — perhaps that’s forgivable for a 10-episode Netflix series, but it’s a disaster for an album. But even the tracklisting is a signifier with this band, and what it’s meant to communicate is “we are ambitious, and we make grand, important statements.” That’s another lesson Healy should have learned from Corgan and the Gallaghers: At some point, bombastic arena-rock acts stop making better albums, and instead make longer albums. Spending 80 minutes with The 1975 makes them less endearing, not more.
After immersing myself in this behemoth, it became painfully clear just how derivative The 1975 are. As Healy himself has admitted, “The way that I write music is that I listen to a song I love and I copy it,” and you can hear examples of that kind of “songcraft” all over Conditional Form, whether it’s the transparent Pinegrove homage (with the wincing Pinegrove lyrical reference) “The Birthday Party,” or the callow Bon Iver tribute “Don’t Worry.” Sometimes, he simply inserts himself into someone else’s sonic world without bothering to eject the originator, like the ridiculously titled “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” in which an otherwise affecting Phoebe Bridgers song about unrequited love is subsumed by The 1975. If this is artistic invention, then Dracula was “artistically inventive” when he subsisted on the blood of his victims.
If The 1975 were untalented, I probably wouldn’t find them annoying. But this band’s slide into insufferable boorishness has made it impossible for me to enjoy the qualities I once responded to: their humor, their shameless bravado, their knack for familiar but inviting melodies. It’s that very frustration that fuels my ire. 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.
Notes On A Conditional Form is out on 5/22 via Dirty Hit. Get it here.
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