Album Review: The 1975 - Notes on a Conditional Form

In the age of music as content, churned out to fill playlists on streaming services, the album has had a bit of a crisis. What’s the point of arranging songs this way if they don’t have to fit onto a disc with a limited amount of space? The responses to this question have been varied but, as a trend, albums have become more bloated. R&B superstar Drake’s 2018 album Scorpion is an excellent example of an album dragged to nearly an hour and a half long to provide as many playlist-ready tracks as possible. The lengthy double-album is nothing new, of course, but these days an artist doesn’t tend to release one to make an artistic statement – like Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde or The Beatles’ White Album – so much as to have as much content to satisfy the greedy streaming ecosystem. More alternative musicians may have a higher motive – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ masterpiece Ghosteen was a double LP for a clear artistic reason – but for the most part popular music pursues length for the sake of it. 

However, if there’s one popular band who aren’t shy of making artistic statements, it’s The 1975. The punky pop rock band from Cheshire have had a considerable amount of crossover success whilst never watering down their sound for better commercial potential (unlike other ‘rock’ bands, such as Imagine Dragons, whose hit-seeking constantly brings them to new lows of artistic worthlessness). Especially on their last, critically acclaimed album A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, The 1975 have an eclectic, somewhat scattershot, approach to genre, enabling them to net a hit with one song and experiment like Radiohead on the next. Tying it all together is frontman Matt Healy, with his intoxicating – and admittedly sometimes grating – lyrical blend of social commentary, self-reflection and provocation. Love It If We Made It, the second single from that last album, exemplifies this approach at its best, arranging sharp snapshots of 2018’s political landscape into an uncompromising yet cautiously optimistic anthem for the socially-conscious millennial. However you feel about The 1975 – and they are divisive – they don’t do anything without feeling like they have something to say. 

Which brings us to Notes on a Conditional Form, the highly anticipated follow-up to A Brief Inquiry. This is, at over 80 minutes, a long album and critics have placed great emphasis on this fact. The 1975 are no stranger to polarised receptions and it’s especially unsurprising in this instance when there’s so much of them on one album. The length has also made the album tricky to pin down; some have compared it to Radiohead’s Kid A, a logical choice considering the previous album’s OK Computer comparisons. But I’m not convinced this fits. Kid A was a radical departure from OK Computer, whilst Notes on a Conditional Form feels more like a natural expansion of the previous album’s eclectic explorations. I think a closer comparison would be the aforementioned White Album – an album that, whilst not without its weak moments, ultimately succeeds thanks to the band’s willingness to explore the extremes of their creativity. 

If there was any doubt The 1975 were trying to make a statement with this album, the eponymous opening track makes it clear. An elegant ambient instrumental glistens and swells beneath a rousing speech by youth climate activist Greta Thunberg pressing the urgent need for action to combat climate change. This track was first released back in July of 2019, when youth climate activism was perhaps a bit more “in vogue” and it’s hard to resist the temptation, especially as someone who has been involved in the movement for a decent amount of time, to dismiss Thunberg’s words as a bit familiar at this point. However, no matter how attractive apathy looks, climate action is still desperately needed and Thunberg remains a powerful messenger for the cause, making her presence on one of the most hyped records of 2020 a welcome one. 

Apathy, whilst we’re on the subject, is clearly not what The 1975 are gunning for. People, a full-blown punk rock track with an industrial edge, immediately follows Thunbergs calls to “rebel” with Healy’s repeated screams of “wake up!” This is not the only exploration of new musical territory on this album but it is the only one of its kind. There are a number of fleeting experiments that give Notes both its exciting unpredictability and unavoidable messiness. Roadkill is the least successful of these, an old fashioned dad rock track that doesn’t fit on such a modern sounding album. That said, the album tends to be sequenced in a way that avoids jarring the listener too much, often employing ambient interludes or intros to soften the transitions or, as in the case of People, jumping intuitively from the conclusion of the previous track. I wouldn’t say their last album, so praised for its eclecticism, was that consistent in its sound either – its tracklist was just more neatly trimmed. When another 20 minutes is added to the runtime, it’s hardly surprising things feel more untidy. Notes on a Conditional Form may not be the height of cohesion but if you’re still looking for that in The 1975, I don’t know what to tell you. 

Notes on a Conditional Form may not be the height of cohesion but if you’re still looking for that in The 1975, I don’t know what to tell you.
– Nathan Brooks

Once we’ve moved past how all over the place the album is, there’s a lot of excitement to be had in the myriad of styles and influences drawn on here. The singles alone provide a solid insight into the record’s sonic canvas. The aforementioned People was followed by Frail State of Mind, a chilled out progression of the band’s dancehall explorations that started with A Brief Inquiry‘s TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME. Me & You Together Song and Guys are a pair of nostalgic dream pop tunes, the former an energetic portrait of unrequited infatuation and the latter a more laid back and heartfelt tribute to the band’s friendship. The Birthday Party draws on jazz and hip hop in a similar way to the last album’s Sincerity is Scary but with a slight psychedelic layer thanks to some weird pitch shifted vocals. If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know) is the album’s most obvious single, an exploration of intimacy in the internet era that has only become more relevant, drawing on ’80s pop rock like many of The 1975’s biggest songs with a Springsteen-esque saxophone cranking up the euphoria. Finally, Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America, despite its absurd title, is an utterly gorgeous duet with Phoebe Bridgers that combines her indie folk style with euphoric horns reminiscent of 2010 Bon Iver. It might be the best song on the album. 

A delve into the album’s deeper cuts finds that the diversity is not dialled down. There are some more conventional rock songs, such as Then Because She Goes, which harkens back to ‘90s shoegaze with its wall-of-sound guitars drenching a summery, melancholic melody. Phoebe Bridgers provides backing vocals on that song and a number of others, including Playing on My Mind, an amusing, existential track drawing on American folk musicians like James Taylor. However, this album’s sound goes far beyond the boundaries of rock music. Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied gets existential again with the help of a big, gospel chorus whilst Bagsy Not in Net turns a soft rock string loop into a subtle dance track about not wanting to leave your partner alone after death. Yeah I Know is a jittery but earworm-y electronica track that evokes the solo exploits of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, whilst the instrumentals, such as The End (Music for Cars) and Streaming, demonstrate inspiration from bands like Sigur Rós with their lush, orchestral interpretation of ambient music. 

It’s a lot to wrap your head around. Some of the experiments don’t quite make the leap from interesting studio tinkering to fully-fledged song but the sheer range of sounds at least keeps you on your toes. I just wish they’d reordered the tracklist towards the end, as many of the more low tempo, ‘unfinished’ sounding songs get concentrated there, such as Don’t Worry, a surprisingly earnest, vocoder-heavy duet with Healy’s father that doesn’t come together as fully as its emotional themes demand. The result is a record that somewhat drags as it reaches the finish line. If they’d peppered in another big, hook-y pop song in the final fifth it would have gone a long way towards oiling the album’s flow. 

It’s a lot to wrap your head around. Some of the experiments don’t quite make the leap from interesting studio tinkering to fully-fledged <song but the sheer range of sounds at least keeps you on your toes.
– Nathan Brooks

Certain themes do emerge, however. Healy has said that British nighttime culture was a big inspiration, resulting in a heavy dance music presence. Dub, house and dancehall are prevalent both as rhythmic tinges on otherwise more traditionally 1975 songs like I Think There’s Something You Should Know and as outright rave music, such as the FKA Twigs featuring What Should I Say or Shiny Collarbone. The latter is perhaps the album’s most experimental moment, a deep house groove built around vocal samples from Jamaican dancehall musician Cutty Ranks. Whilst this dance influence doesn’t underpin the whole album it is one of the few features that consistently reappears. It gives Notes a unique, hallucinogenic energy, wrapping the fragmented collection of genres in a hazy, funky cloud, as if the whole album was a half-remembered night out. 

Of course, we cannot forget Matt Healy. Despite absolutely possessing the ability to be aggravating, he frequently has quite the way with words. Being self-referential is a big part of his writing but usually in a genuinely clever way that avoids self-indulgence. Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied, for example, refers back to Love It If We Made It‘s opening line with the confession “I never f***ed in a car, I was lying”, showcasing Healy’s classic balancing act between shameless provocation and sincere introspection. He does often run the risk of that provocation going to far; Roadkill contains a homophobic slur which, whilst not used in an intentionally homophobic context, is still unnecessary and understandably makes many LGBTQ fans uncomfortable. For the most part, though, Healy’s lyricism is on fine form, especially when he undergoes witty self-reflection. “But I won’t get clothes online ’cause I get worried about the fit / But that rule don’t apply concerning my relationships” from Playing on My Mind is a good example of his penchant for self-deprecation. 

However, Healy is not as dominant a presence as he’s previously been. Another feature that holds this album together (as much as possible) is the production, which Healy credits to George Daniels. The band’s drummer, synthesiser whizz and primary producer “takes a really big responsibility on himself to express himself through sonics” according to Healy. This results in some fascinating instrumentals that, even when a big pop hook is drawing attention away from them, are alive with restless detail, as if teeming with microorganisms of sound. Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy) is a prime example of this, with its head-spinning backdrop of guitars, synths and distorted vocals built around a pitch-shifted sample of The Temptations Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me). However, the length of the album and the numerous instrumental tracks also give Daniels the chance to be the centre of attention every now and then. Having No Head is one where he really sprawls, beginning with delicate piano ambience reminiscent of Brian Eno that gradually twists into another trance-like exploration of electronic dance music. 22 tracks with Matt Healy front-and-centre could have been exhausting so giving more room to Daniels’ sides of their collaboration was a smart way to temper that. 

How does Notes On a Conditional Form fit into the canon of long albums? It’s safe to say it’s not just the sort hoping to fill playlists; whilst there are tracks with hit potential, too many are weird experiments that do not work as standalone songs. Does it succeed as an artistic statement, then? That’s hard to judge when it’s so difficult to pin down what that statement is. Both musically and lyrically, this album is a shameless mass of contradictions. In interviews it feels as if Healy has described the album’s definitive feel in so many different ways I’m not sure they even know what it is. What I do know, however, is that I always feel a certain thrill when a band throws caution to the wind and packs an album with every wild idea that comes into their heads. It’s hardly surprising then that The 1975, a band hardly known for their self-restraint, have released one of the strongest embodiments of that attitude so far this century.