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REVIEW: The 1975 – ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ (Dirty Hit / Polydor / Interscope)


In a sentence:

On their fourth album ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’, The 1975’s ambition often exceeds their grasp, sounding like a poorly curated playlist.

These are turbulent times, and the turbulent and haphazard album release cycle for Notes On A Conditional Form at least reflects that, if nothing else. For nearly a year The 1975 have been rolling out single after single (seven in total, by this point) in promotion for this constantly delayed record. Finally the second part of the band’s ‘Music For Cars’ era, that started with the critically acclaimed A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships, concludes now – in 22 tracks, spread over 80 minutes, and probably over an hour’s worth of preceding interview footage in which frontman Matty Healy is pontificating ideas about the album that had yet to be finished, most of which turned out to be inaccurate (for example, every song having a title with a foreign word that has no English language translation… what??).

Not unlike Healy’s tendency to operate seemingly without a filter and occasionally slip in to talking like he’s shit-posting on Tumblr, what Notes On A Conditional Form actually ended up being, for better or for worse, is a reflection of the generation of infinite playlists, public streams of consciousness, self-references, and a questionable attention span.

In this particular “era” of theirs, The 1975 seemingly ascended beyond just being a band, to wanting to be the band. Healy, in particular, tends to strive to be the voice of his simultaneously insecurity and ego-ridden generation, sometimes landing upon gestures that are as empathetic as they are astute, and sometimes upon shameless self-indulgence. Constantly walking a line that inconsistently pays off, like the aforementioned prequel to this record ABIIOR, which, despite being a complete free-for-all genre-wise, managed to thread through a thorough idea of human-ness in times of predominantly digital interaction. This time around, the band manages to land on the other end, leading to an album that tries to be reflective, but more often than not ends up being self-indulgent beyond the point of warranting a big thesis on thematic relevance. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

Not to say that the record is completely devoid of excellent pop music moments that make the band so successful and so adored by fans. ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’, despite skirting the edge of being a shameless rip-off of Tears For Fears, is too much fun and too full of borderline-camp brass sections to hate. ‘Me & You Together Song’, likewise, uses pastiche about as well as anyone can, to produce a heart-warmingly simplistic (with a wink and a nod, of course) love song. However, it’s when you start slowly (very, very slowly) treading through the territory of the non-single deep cuts, that the album really starts to sag.

Many of these tracks are UK garage spin-offs – emo-garage, if you will. Sadly, loads of these, in particular the instrumentals, just don’t work in the context of a whole album, nor, even, in terms of the band’s discography or image. The whiplash of going from opener ‘People’, a Fugazi-like punk song about the civil disobedience in the face of global warming, to a sweeping orchestral interlude titled ‘The End (Music For Cars)’, to the house/garage/pop track ‘Frail State Of Mind’ about the anxiety of going outside your house, gives more whiplash than any record in recent memory, and not necessarily in a good way. The songs by themselves aren’t awful by any measure, and it’s not impossible to make songs from radically different genres work on an album together. The same band proved that with their last release. But screwing up the sequencing on an 80+ minute record really really hurts.

A lot of The 1975’s output feels like Burroughs-esque collages, a melange of whatever things interest them in the music of others, and finding ways to apply it to their own excessively-millennial vision. ‘Yeah I Know’ has the pebble-like coarse background beats of Burial and those Diplo/Skrillex pitch-bended vocal samples of any house/EDM track of the past ten years or so. Songs like these feel like George Daniel, the other definitive half of the creative vision behind the band, flexing his production muscles. Which isn’t bad, necessarily, and on previous records it resulted in some the group’s best musical moments, such as their sophomore LP’s titular track or last year’s ‘How To Draw / Petrichor’, but it was because those tracks somehow still connected to that central 1975-ness in theme and sound and mood. Many of the tracks on Notes On A Conditional Form feel like a nifty random surprise at best and rip-off filler at worst.

‘What Should I Say’, which immediately follows the much better Jon Hopkins-inspired track ‘Having No Head’, feels like it should’ve been at least half as long. ‘Bagsy Not In Net’ also feels like an idea that didn’t work on a basic level and should’ve been scrapped when it came time to sequence the album. And just as a side note, what the fuck is ‘Shiny Collarbone’? Out of all the genres the band have tended to pull from, 80s pop, emo, even country, all of them seemed somewhat passable and the band usually manage to one way or another make it their own. ‘Shiny Collarbone’, however, is a Jamaican dancehall track. You read correctly. The 1975 are a band that, personally at least, always seemed astounding in the way that they constantly appeared to be completely in their own element, despite the influences they were operating under. Which makes it such a shame when this track comes on and reads as a complete and utter temporary loss of identity.

All of these bizarre instrumental meanderings feel even worse when you manage to dig out the little gold nuggets of song-writing out of the record, lost amongst an endless sea of unchecked ego driven meanderings. ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’ actually somehow manages to pull off the emo-garage vibe the band were seemingly going for. It sounds like a toy box that’s come to life, gained sentience, and immediately experienced a philosophical crisis of existence. It treads lightly yet profoundly. It underlines how George Daniel has gotten that much better at accommodating Healy’s every arty song-writing whim, making it, at the very least, sound incredibly produced. Meanwhile, ‘Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)’ pulls from pop and soul in a way that’s both excessively fun and emotional.

Sadly, for every excellent track on the record, there seems to be another track or two that’s the same but worse. Even if the oddly placed ‘The End (Music For Cars)’ interlude wouldn’t be a disaster if positioned elsewhere on the record, the other orchestral interlude ‘Streaming’, placed one song after it (!!!), can only be defined as a minute and a half completely wasted. For every ‘Me & You Together Song’, that’s a successful indulgence in saccharine indie rock, there’s another indie-rock romp like ‘Then Because She Can’, which I couldn’t hum or tell you what it’s about even after seven or so listens.

All in all, Notes On A Conditional Form seems like unchecked ambition nearing its worst possible incarnation. For every good idea, there’s a bad one, and there’s clearly no critic within the main creative circle to withhold any of it. In trying so hard to reflect the modern era and all of its bizarreness, incongruity, randomness and obsessiveness, The 1975 are starting to sound like someone’s very poorly curated playlist. (5/10) (Ellie Wolf)

Listen to Notes On A Conditional Form by The 1975 here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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