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REVIEW: The 1975 – ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ (Dirty Hit / Polydor)


In a sentence:

Listening to The 1975 trying to actively forge an intelligent, overarching statement in an era when sincerity has long since died makes A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships arguably the most relevant pop album this decade.

I have once, in one of my slightly intoxicated, overly-excited monologues to friends about whatever art I happen to be into at the moment, described The 1975 as “Millennial postmodernism reflecting back on itself and simultaneously being confused by and in awe of what it sees”. It’s not exactly a clear-cut description, haphazardly throwing together concepts that in themselves hold a multitude of meanings to try and explain every single notion and variation thereof that I have in my head. But that’s also what the band does, or better yet, what it is. So the pretentious descriptor kind of works, if not directly, at least by meta-narrative approximation.

“My career has been what it’s been like to be at a house party at 20, 25, and 29” – said the band’s lead singer Matty Healy in an interview with Dazed. Their debut full-length album basically distilled repetitive three-note guitar riffs into an art form of their own to sing about “bumming ‘round town” and how “I’m not your typical stoned 18 year old”, as well as other non-subtle lyricisms that were so emblematic of teenage nonchalance it was almost annoying, in the way teenagers are if you’re not one. Not to say there weren’t slight hints of something slightly more musically profound in the making. Around the chart smashes like ‘Chocolate’ and ‘Girls’, were scattered tracks like ‘M.O.N.E.Y.’ – a glitched-out pop tune with vocals delivered in a sardonic manner that’s now a staple for the band’s sound – or ‘Menswear’, a track that’s impenitent enough to make you sit through more than a minute and a half of gooey, minimalistic ambience on what is essentially an indie-pop record, until it finally kicks in for a fun little recap about a wedding reception gone wrong.

This wouldn’t coalesce into a larger, proper musical statement though, until the release of their second record I like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. The album displayed a general vibe of maturation, both in its themes as well as its more overt and wide-ranging influences. Crammed with self-reflection, lyrics that called back to the first album in a disenfranchised manner (“I never found love in the city / Just sat in self-pity and cried in the car”) and touches of soft ‘80s synth pop and lush ambience. It was unchecked ambition at its best and worst. A band that was mostly written off by music critics stating that they have Things To Say and displaying a self-awareness of their own shtick (songs like ‘The Sound’ being an unfairly catchy parody of their own tropes) that bordered on obnoxiously self-indulgent. Some of the most brilliant pop singles of the year, alongside at least three slightly too forgiving of their own length ambient numbers, in a total of more than 80 minutes of music.

When news of their third album release broke, Matty Healy was going around doing interviews in which he proclaimed that he wants their third album to be The Third Album – like OK Computer or The Queen Is Dead. The now almost archetypal trajectory of a band releasing a third album to outdo all other albums, the one that cements a legacy is what he seemed to be aiming for. You could almost grasp the manic energy and restlessness behind these statements, and a near paralysing, neuroticism inducing yearning to contribute to the established canon. Or, more accurately, propel what’s currently seemingly stagnant forwards. Henceforth, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships.

The 1975 and Music For Cars

It takes a certain mixture of self-awareness, ambition, and narcissism to proclaim goals as lofty as The 1975. They don’t want to be a pop band. They want to be The Pop Band. It’s often difficult to reconcile conditional and circumstantial awareness with genuine sky-high pretension without you’re output resulting in a mixture of vaguely contradictory statements. Matty Healy and co.’s solution to this is seemingly to embrace contradiction and assert unapologetic indulgence in their own significance anyways.

Unapologetic indulgence results in having “eras” accompanying their albums. With aesthetics and themes and performances to match. The black and white era of the self-titled album. The neon pink era of their sophomore effort in 2016. When the band first began teasing the release of ABIIOR, Matty posted a screenshot of demos on his laptop titled ‘Music For Cars’, leading fans to believe that that will be the new album title and it’s the return of the black and white era all over again. But of course not, the band later stating in interviews that Music For Cars is only the name of this new “era”, under which they’re releasing not one, but two full-length albums: A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships being the first one, with the second, titled Notes On A Conditional Form, set to release in the spring of 2019.

That same unapologetic indulgence results in naming your albums the way Kant named his books. It results in teasing the record slowly over half a year. With cryptic posters that seem to reference New Tendencies art and various notable human/AI interactions, massive billboards, annoyingly short sound snippets posted on Instagram, and five singles that musically have next to nothing in common. It also results in obviously trying really damn hard to Make Art, and obvious try-hard-ism is just about the most out-of-fashion thing these days.

The 1975 and postmodernism

Postmodernism is a term that defines that period following Modernism in art (think 1960s-ish onwards), a term coined to explain people moving away from a general agreement upon the existence of universal truths or an objective reality, as well as the collapse of a clear distinction between “high culture” and “popular/mass culture”. Postmodernism is an excruciatingly vague term that’s used to evoke more or less general characteristics of postmodern art and/or state of being: self-awareness, irony, contradictory layers of meaning.

By that definition, there’s arguably no current pop band that encompasses the concept of postmodernity better than The 1975, and they seem to be aware of this too. The self-referential, tongue-in-cheek nature of most of their lyrics, even the type of sonic reference they employ to an extent, makes it almost painfully obvious. Which is why it was so bizarre to hear frontman Matty Healy speak of dropping the whole postmodern thing and being unabashedly sincere without any gimmick on these new albums in interviews pre-dating the release of the record. Not that it was fully true, of course. Being born in the ‘90s, the contradictory condition is so deeply entrenched in your self-expression that there’s almost no way to fully root it out. Nevertheless, ABIIOR makes a definite solid attempt.

One of the pre-release singles for the album, ‘Sincerity Is Scary’, a gospel-inspired track of all things, directly reckons with this dilemma. “And irony is okay, I suppose, culture is to blame / You try and mask your pain in the most postmodern way”. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, they go on to reference themselves again in a call back to one of their lyrical in-jokes: “You lack substance when you say / Something like, ‘Oh, what shame’ / It’s just a self-referential way that stops you having to be human”.

The song is exemplary groove-heavy and yet simultaneously gentle, almost classic-sounding. Notably, legendary trumpeter Roy Hargrove contributes his playing to the song, amidst gospel-like choirs, and a jazzy piano. ‘Sincerity Is Scary’ wants to make a simple point about peace and love, but in a non-sexy way where it’s quite obvious. It also prompts a question: for a band that’s basically made a career on themes of contradiction between sardonic self-reference and genuine emotion, what’s there to write about if you scrap the sardonic self-reference bit?

The 1975 and the post-digital age

The name of the album speaks for itself. It’s 2018 and with streaming in place, music (as well as other forms of media) is consumed endlessly, haphazardly, and rarely with regard for tonal congruence. I myself wake up in the morning to and listen to shamelessly up-beat rock to perk myself up, then go to work listening to hip-hop, and come back from work blasting melancholy synth-pop in the evening. Go to a trance/techno party at night and then fall asleep to ambient music (or sad acoustic ballads on a particularly emotional day). And everything is there for easy access whenever I want. We never really wait for anything or linger on any one thing for a prolonged amount of time, and our attention spans have been shortened such that if we don’t get audio-visual stimulation from about five different sources per day we get bored.

In accordance with the lived experience of this generation, within the first three songs (not counting the staple intro track ‘The 1975’, a re-work of which begins every single one of their records), the band swerve between genres so abruptly you almost get whiplash. ‘Give Yourself A Try’ is somewhat reminiscent of Joy Division’s Closer, over which Matty reflects back on himself, with a chorus that, in the same bizarre twist for the band, veers towards actually life-affirming, simplistic advice, hitting one of the bigger running themes of the record – awkward sincerity over postmodern cynicism and inherently distant irony. The illegally catchy ‘TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME’, sounds like a perked-up version of Drake’s ‘One Dance’ and is such a ridiculous pastiché of modern, watered-down dancehall pop that with the added lyrics of casual emotional infidelity and implied jealousy over online interactions, it starts coming across as a genuine comment upon the form. ‘How To Draw / Petrichor’ starts out as a gorgeous ambient piece with auto-tuned vocals that are worthy of current Bon Iver, until it breaks into a glitchy techno-pop track, to leave you bopping your head to the beat, slightly confused at one point you ended up listening to this.

By some miracle, the songs don’t feel like aimless forays into whatever genre The 1975 obsessed with for a week during the creative process. Unlike the exact thing on which this album’s predecessor I like it when you sleep… fell short, the choices here seem very deliberate, and actually manage to not overstay their welcome. By the end of the album you’ll also have heard a Nick Drake-like acoustic ballad, a jazz standard, a contemporary spoken word piece that’s meant to be a thematic sequel to Radiohead’s ‘Fitter Happier’, and a full-blown rock ballad in the vein of ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ or ‘Champagne Supernova’. All pulled off with a surprising amount of craftsmanship without any of them losing the intended emotion to deliberate construction.

The bigger, overarching narrative binding all these songs together, however perceptibly, seems to be genuine human interaction in the age of social media, as well as being confused by an overabundance of information, news and ideas, at all times, always. Which brings us to what can possibly be pegged as the mission statement for the entire record, ‘Love It If We Made It’.

As the excessively bombastic drums kick in, you get Healy borderline screaming flashes of the events of the last couple of years, actual headline quotes. Not really personal opinions, per say, more a genuine portrayal of what it’s like to live through this half-decade. “Access all the applications / That are hardening positions based on miscommunication / Oh, fuck your feelings / Truth is only hearsay / We’re just left to decay / Modernity has failed us”. The only personal statement expressed in the chorus: “I’d love it if we made it”, signifying, perhaps naive, hope for a future in which by some off chance we all survive. The unruly synth instrumental aids statements that would fall under the absurdist comedy descriptor, if they weren’t literal quotes by the sitting president of the United States: “”I moved on her like a bitch!” / Excited to be indicated / Unrequited house with seven pools / “Thank you Kanye, very cool!”

If there was ever an actual anthem for these last couple of years, it’s this, and it’s the song that very nearly makes the band’s self-aggrandising statements seem earned.

The 1975 and post-postmodernism

Music consciously, purposefully, and obviously engaging in a wider cultural dialogue about art seems to be a rarity these days, outside of the niche avant-garde contemporary experimental music circles, and basically non-existent in pop. It’s somewhat of an outlier, when it comes to these discussions. You can’t really display non-modest intellectualism and an awareness of where you stand without the entire comment section of The Guardian slagging you off as pretentious. Who do you even think you are? A fucking artist?

Nonetheless, the band’s self-awareness, is being used for much more than just tongue-in-cheek self-reference here. It’s a purposeful effort to push a medium beyond what’s expected of it. And throughout all the slightly awkward stumbles, some statements turning out better than others, slight confusion, slight backpedalling, and difficulties keeping to a uniform statement for more than five minutes, it comes across as one of the best depictions of the modern era in recent memory.

Reflecting back on classics shows the band’s knowledge of the canon, but they shine most when looking onwards, reflecting on more contemporary music tools, using them in a way that’s familiar of others, yet with a twist that’s so inherently them it’s impossible to mistake whose song it is. Such as on ‘I Like America & America Likes Me’, a trap-beat, auto-tune freak out of a song, with one of the most quintessential lines of the record: “Kids don’t want rifles, they want Supreme”.

Postmodernism has been gradually dying since the early 2000s, with cultural theorists trying to coin various other terms to describe whatever movement is going to manifest itself next. But it’s all guesswork. Nothing has distinctly happened yet. Definitely not in pop-culture, anyway. But watching The 1975 trying to actively forge a path into whatever unknown that may be, at least thematically if nothing else, makes A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships arguably the most captivating and relevant pop album this decade. (9/10) (Ellie Wolf)

Listen to A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships by The 1975 here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

1 Discussion on “REVIEW: The 1975 – ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ (Dirty Hit / Polydor)”
  • Ellie, I’m surprised that you seem to think this record is “sincere” while the Muse record is “cynical”. We must have very different definitions of those words.

    To me, the Muse record, even if you think it’s shit, at least sounds like they had fun making it. They felt like making an 80s synthpop / Vangelis / John Carpenter tribute about simulated reality and did it. Meanwhile, this expressly-made-for-Pitchfork The 1975 vehicle sounds to me like a generic boy band trying desperately to “elevate” their vaguely One Direction pop rock by infusing it with a good dollop of navelgazing, handwringing neuroticism. At least Muse have pretty much always done their own thing without paying attention to “fitting in” with a certain movement, instead of desperately aiming to be the “voice of a generation”.

    “Sincerity Is Scary” is a song title a Babyboomer would come up with to ruthlessly mock Millennial culture . And the lyrics of their “anthem” aren’t much better. “Modernity has failed us.” Really? I’d even take random, forced references to drones over this dude’s Twitter deepities that sound like they’ve been crafted with the express purpose of getting laid with some social studies chick. The only band that is even more paint-dryingly and life force-drainingly dull than this lot is The National, the musical equivalent of clinical depression resistant to electroshock therapy..

    As a Millennial myself I’d like to distantiate myself from this never-ending self-inflicted neuroticism. Who the fuck cares “what comes after Postmodernism”? Who the fuck gives a shit about what metalevel of irony or sincerity they are currently inhabiting? How is this a conundrum to anyone who has ever bothered to log out from Twitter, put down their copy of “Infinite Jest” and just stare at the wall and be alone with their own thoughts for two minutes? “Trying to be sincere” is the kind of contradictio in terminis that only people who care too much about the opinion of music critics fall into. If Freddie Mercury had been this much of a neurotic self-conscious wreck, he’d have titled Bohemian Rhapsody “Ballet for the Masses” and it would have been shit instead of awesome. I hope his corpse is resurrected so that he can slap some sense into this Healy character and sell out Wembley for the third time.

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