Listening to a 1975 record used to be like giving a familiar face a friendly wave as you drive by. A welcome interaction, but ultimately rather forgettable. Raw and exciting as early tunes such as “sex” or “she way out” were, the Manchester band stuck mostly to a fairly ubiquitous style of pop rock. Everything was safe, carefully crafted in verse chorus form — comforting, easily digestible, and warm. Even when lead singer Matty Healy was crooning about drug addiction, overdosing at weddings, and generally being a terrible human being, the listener could easily digest the 80s pop meets 2000s alternative rock bliss.
Well that was 2013, and now, it appears, the 1975 want you to listen. Such is clear on their most recent record, Notes on a Conditional Form, an 80 minute, 22-track cluster of songs that suddenly want to be taken seriously. And it’s all a bit confusing. Rather than sticking to one uniform genre, the 1975 have drawn from all over the place here, getting help from Phoebe Bridgers on one track, before pitching up the Temptations on the next. The result is something of a taxing listen — an immersion into Healy’s confusing, muddled world — one that, despite its meanderings, is often a quite wonderful exploration of a music industry that no longer sees genre as a firm boundary.
The numbers alone characterize Notes as a hefty project: 22 tracks, 82 minutes, recorded in at least 15 different countries — almost entirely while on tour. Healy envisioned it as a quick follow up to 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, but it soon started to spiral. Release dates came and went, with the band aiming for late 2018, before changing their mind twice before eventually settling on a date almost 18 months later than promised. One might have thought that such a delay would streamline the process, produce a tighter, more succinct record. However, the 1975 have offered something quite different: a sprawling record that catches every instinctive pluck of a guitar string or click on a synthesizer to characterize the frenetic world they live in. And it’s all the more interesting for it.
In Pitchfork’s top song of 2018, and arguably the ‘75’s most important tune to date, “Love it if we made it”, Healy adamantly claimed that “modernity has failed us.” It seems like he’s out to prove it here. The front man has long made a habit of bending genre, drawing from all sorts of styles and finding comfort in contradiction. It’s an act that he often described as a way of hiding his insecurities — something he addressed himself, in the self-deprecating tune “sincerity is scary.” It’s that same awareness that defines Notes. Now 31 years old, almost 10 years removed from declaring “we might as well just fuck” in breakout hit “sex”, Healy has become well aware that he’s a cliché. He can’t sing about drugs, because he’s taken them and gone to rehab. He can’t sing about sex, because he’s already racked up 100 million streams on Spotify doing so, and all rock stars are “supposed” to get their end off. So, what spaces can Healy occupy, then?
His answer is a resounding “all of them.” Notes opens with a five minute Greta Thunberg speech (still humbly entitled “the 1975” for continuity’s sake) before moving on to a screaming punk jam in which Healy begs the world to “stop fucking with the kids.” From there, the listener is offered an ambient interlude that not-so-subtly evokes Sigur Rós, to a chopped up, spluttering tune about social anxiety (featuring the eerily appropriate opener: “go outside/seems unlikely.”) And the pattern continues, as Notes dips into dancehall, afrobeats, instrumental folk, and 80s pop.
And somehow Healy gets away with it. That can largely be attributed to the expanded presence of alright drummer and far-better producer George Daniel, increasingly the creative force behind the band. If Healy is the generational mouthpiece, Daniel is the spokesperson who tunes the gibberish into something worth listening to. 2018’s A Brief Inquiry saw the 1975 go without an outside producer for the first time — yielding some of their most intriguing work thus far. Handing Daniel the keys to do the same here not only salvages Healy’s mad outbursts, it turns them into something quite beautiful. The dancehall influenced “What should I say” serves as the perfect microcosm. It starts with a looped FKA Twigs sample, moving into an auto-tuned Healy proclaiming that “they are calling out your name” (who “they” is appears to be rather irrelevant.) And then, just over 2 minutes in, the record expands into a kind of beat that wouldn’t be out of place on a Calvin Harris song, turning an early dubstep thud into a dance floor bop. It’s madness, it’s contradictory, but it somehow works. Notes pulls off similar feats multiple times: “yeah I know”, “I think there’s something you should know” and “Tonight (I wish I was your boy)” all get away with the same radical shifts in genre — turning slow burning tracks into expansive, complex danceable tunes.
Part of the appeal in this is that the 1975 skip from different genres yet still sound very much like themselves. Even when Healy disappears in favor of sweeping instrumental interludes, such as the glorious “Having no Head”, the 1975 sound is very much present. That can partially be attributed to their relentless tendency to self-reference. The twinkly instrumental behind Thunberg’s spoken word opener, for instance, is identical to Inquiry’s “The man who married a robot.” Healy does the same in his lyrics — even writing off some of his grandest claims in rare bursts of modesty. He is happy to point out that, contrary to the opening line of “Love it if we made it”, he “never fucked in the car. I was lying.” These oddly humble moments from Healy serve as a welcome respite from an artist with an often concerning lack of filter. However, Healy is clearly determined to establish himself as equally complex and contradictory as before. Despite his more modest outlook, he still provides lyrics such as “maybe I’d like you better if you took of your clothes”, serving as a not-so-gentle reminder that he is still indeed the brash, charismatic lead singer of one of the world’s biggest bands — and painfully aware of it.
As one might expect in such a lengthy album, the 1975 don’t quite get it right all the time. 80 minutes is simply far too long — certainly too much Healy for anyone’s liking. The 6 instrumental tracks, although indicative of Daniel’s expanding creativity, could be trimmed down. Other songs, such as the Americana-infused “Roadkill” lack the punch of the rest of the record. Penned while touring America, Healy claims it’s about taking the piss out of himself: musing on being called homosexual slurs, listening to his music getting roasted on the radio, slagging off his old lyrics — he even throws in a clanger about struggling with an erection. But self-deprecation does Healy’s search for sincerity no good in this case. Instead, the song plays like a distilled parody of one of their debut record’s standouts “Robbers.” “There because she goes” similarly struggles. Clearly an attempt to mold “There she goes” with “Sparky’s Dream”, it never really gets off the ground, cutting itself short at just over 2 minutes without delivering on its promise to explore the world of Manchester guitar bands that birthed the ‘75.
Such misfires are inevitable in such a long record. But, fortunately for Healy and co., they are remarkably few. Instead, the listener is left with a challenging, but captivating project. Those looking for the jingly pop of 2015’s I Like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it will be left disappointed. The choruses here are subdued, suited to locking oneself out from the world than blasting in the shower. Similarly, there are few dramatic solos or catchy riffs. Words are chopped up and looped, auto-tuned and warped. Healy constantly alluded to such a sound before the record’s release, dubbing it an homage to garage music and driving on the M62. Perhaps it’s not a reality that most have experienced — but that reflective late-night-drive mood is abundantly clear.
The vinyl version of A brief inquiry… came with an extensive manifesto, demarcated by “THIS HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE”, adorned in massive type. It served as the perfect summary for the album. Introspective and conceptual as that record was, it still made time for the infectious 80s pop spaces in which the band thrives. Notes, though, offers a real sense of uniqueness. Influences: Sigur Rós, The La’s, Orbital, The Avalanches, and basically any UK garage music are clear — but they don’t define the album. Instead, they are expertly spliced and morphed to form what can finally be considered the 1975’s own, unique sound. For the first time, the 1975 has done something distinctive, something different, something difficult. And, in the current climate, when 80 minutes seems a lot less significant than in months prior, it might be exactly what the world needed. A wave to a friend is pleasant, but a wholesome, lengthy hug — especially now — is far more valuable and memorable.
Listen to: “If you’re too shy (let me know)”, “What should I say”, “Nothing revealed/everything denied”