Album Review: The 1975 - A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships

In their review of A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, the latest album from Manchester pop-rock giants The 1975, NME dubbed it “the millennial answer to OK Computer”. At first, this claim seemed shockingly audacious, if not borderline sacrilege. How dare you equate an album – let alone an album by The 1975 – to arguably the greatest record of the ‘90s? To be fair, my experience with The 1975 had been rather limited. I’d come across their big hits and not thought much of them. Sure, there was a punky attitude that I guess could be appealing, but I couldn’t find much beneath the surface to appreciate. Now, however, they’re being compared to Radiohead and receiving perfect scores left, right and centre. Clearly, it was finally time for me to give them a chance.

Unfortunately for The 1975, the first song I heard from A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships was TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME. I can understand why this was released as a single because it’s by far the most generic track on the album. Cashing in on the dancehall trend that has consumed much of the pop charts in the past few years, TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME didn’t do much to convince me this album was going to be anything special. It is, admittedly, deceptively catchy – as many of these dancehall-flavoured tracks are – and the lyrics describe an unfaithful relationship with witty insight. It has also grown on me since I first heard it, but it is still rather jarring within the context of the rest of the album – because the rest of the album is rather good.

Healy’s vocal performance is triumphantly cathartic and the ‘80s synthpop production appropriately taps into the popular desire for nostalgic escapism.

– Nathan Brooks

TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME was preceded by the singles Give Yourself a Try and Love It If We Made It. These songs give a far more accurate impression of the content – and quality – of A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. The former benefits greatly from a killer Joy Division sample, but the song the band build around it is an enjoyable piece of pop-punk in its own right. Although, it is one of the few places were frontman Matt Healy’s lyrics falter slightly. For example, while I understand where it’s coming from, the line “like context in a modern debate I just took it out” comes across as rather forced. Love It If We Made It, on the other hand, is by far the most pertinent pop song for our current political climate. Verses referencing police brutality (“suffocate the black man”) fake news (“truth is only hearsay”) and Donald Trump (“thank you Kanye, very cool!”) are juxtaposed against a cautiously hopeful chorus, perfectly expressing the confusing mixture of emotions so many of us are feeling these days. Healy’s vocal performance is triumphantly cathartic and the ‘80s synthpop production appropriately taps into the popular desire for nostalgic escapism.

Sincerity is Scary is a brilliantly attentive commentary on 21st-century youth culture and the tendency to “mask your pain in the most postmodern way”. It’s a sentiment I imagine a lot of today’s young people (including myself) can relate to, delivered through an anthemic, sing-along chorus and wonderfully bouncy, jazz-tinged production. Mine leans even more heavily into this style, silkily recalling the traditional pop era as Healy considers how marriage fits into his relationship. Be My Mistake is a similarly intimate track, stripping the production right back to emphasise the vulnerability of Healy’s confessions. He appears to be exploring a rebound relationship after a painful breakup, admitting to this new partner “you do make me hard, but she makes me weak”. It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You) explicitly evokes the 80s channelling euphoria of a Killers song, whilst Inside Your Mind recalls the moodier side of the decade with Morrissey-esque vocals and guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early New Order album. You could also easily imagine slow dancing to I Couldn’t Be More in Love during an 80s high school dance.

Funnily enough, there are also a number of moments on the record that actually sound like Radiohead. The text-to-speech narration of The Man Who Married a Robot / Love Theme can’t help but be compared to Fitter Happier from OK Computer; the former has a far clearer narrative than the more oblique Radiohead track, but that doesn’t diminish how incisive (and darkly hilarious) it is. With a few tweaks, Surrounded By Heads And Bodies could fit comfortably onto A Moon Shaped Pool and the intense closing track I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes) is a clear spiritual successor to High and Dry, one of the most beautifully melancholic songs from The Bends. How to Draw / Petrichor is the most fascinating, however, with an unnerving electronic section reminiscent of Radiohead’s obscure 2011 single The Butcher surrounded by an ambient intro similar to the second side of David Bowie’s Low and auto-tuned vocals taking cues from Bon Iver’s 22, A Million.

A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships understands the bewildering zeitgeist of the late 2010s better than any record that’s come before it

– Nathan Brooks

That Bon Iver influence is, however, where another of my gripes about this album lies. On How to Draw / Petrichor it’s perfectly fine, valuably contributing to the track’s freaky, electronic sound collage. The problem is that it ends up being overused on the rest of the album. The intro track The 1975 uses it briefly, which isn’t a huge issue by itself but doesn’t help combat the oversaturation. However, it’s the song I Like America & America Likes Me where it just gets tedious. The band combine the Bon Iver vocals with tiresome trap production, making the track a real generic slog to get through. I quite like 22, A Million, but The 1975’s efforts to mimic it come off as rather uninspired and I have no idea why they thought adding a trap beat would fill it with new life. Alongside TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME, I Love America & America Loves Me prevents me from lavishing this album with quite as much praise as everyone else seems to be.

Still, despite a couple of minor missteps, I actually think A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships ultimately earns its ‘millennial OK Computer’ label. It’s important to stress the millennial part of that equation; The 1975 have very intently updated both the music and themes of OK Computer to specifically relate to this generation of young people. Consequently, this album likely won’t have the enduring value that Radiohead’s masterpiece does. However, in the moment, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships understands the bewildering zeitgeist of the late 2010s better than any record that’s come before it, whilst exploring a spectacularly eclectic and largely effective array of sounds in the process.