ALBUM REVIEW: The 1975 hit home run on ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’

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On paper, The 1975 reads like a trainwreck. Does the world need another unabashedly 1980s-worshipping pop band with a rock band lineup? Whose music places woozy art school experiments, razor-sharp pop songs, and whatever else strikes their fancy side-by-side on too-long albums? With songs that walk a very fine lyrical line between quite clever and quite literary arts major? A band fronted by a lead singer-cum-sex symbol who kind of looks like Sideshow Bob on a perpetual bender? It can’t – it shouldn’t – work.

Well, against the odds, it (mostly) has. Over four initial EPs and two albums, lead vocalist and sometimes-guitarist Matty Healy, lead guitarist Adam Hann, bassist Ross MacDonald, and drummer George Daniel have ridden that incongruous blend of contrasts and contradictions to popular and critical acclaim. Their music embodies the post-modern messiness of coming of age contemporaneously with the internet – the supreme breaker of musical and cultural borders and boundaries – better than any band of their popularity level.

Filesharing and broadband opened doors to whole new worlds, where all the media you could ever want was not only accessible – it was free. You could discover and like shoegaze and African highlife and screamo and 1920s country blues – in one download queue, if you wanted to. Like downtown New York City in the early 1980s, genre lines got blurred. A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships plays like an album made by kids who experienced the potential of the internet as it was being realized.

It could be argued that The 1975 are modern pop’s greatest magpies, grabbing whatever shiny thing catches their eye and using it as they see fit. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not – regardless, they don’t really seem to care. What sets them apart from, say, The Chainsmokers, is that they create things greater than the sum of its parts – interesting, resonant things. Their third album, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, is the best distillation of that aesthetic yet.

The band has always been defined, on some level, by twin pillars of eclecticism and ambition. They have always been carefully considered in their artistic choices. Those characteristics are on display here, but differently than before. The 1975 and I Like it When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It sound like their album covers; there’s a simple, clean clarity on the former; a woozy, neon glow to the latter, both courtesy of producer Mike Crossey. A Brief Inquiry’s sound is also reflected in its art, with obvious, sharply realized details and a keen sense of where each individual element should be placed. This time, Healy and Daniel take the production reins – the sounds are dryer, less lush, but still complementary.

Bon Iver looms large in all his guises – the snowed-in folkie version defines “Be My Mistake”; the processed, pitch-shifted, and diced vocals of 22, A Million are all over the band’s reoccurring, chameleonic intro “The 1975” and new tune “I Like America & America Likes Me”; “Surrounded by Heads and Bodies” takes bits of both. It’s part testament to Justin Vernon’s influence on modern pop music and part manifesto for The 1975’s songwriting and production style: when it works, it just works, so use it. If it doesn’t, fuck it – do it anyway.

“Give Yourself a Try”, the album’s first single, is a checkbox of various 1975ian traits. Doing some influence spotting? The guitar riff is lifted straight from fellow Mancunians Joy Division’s classic “Disorder.” Is there pop sense? The chorus is simple but ruthlessly catchy. Are there kind of smart, hyper-aware lyrics delivered with either a complete lack of self-consciousness or a very obvious wink? “I found a gray hair on one of my suits / Like context in a modern debate, I just took it out” certainly qualifies (and hey, who says you can’t be unselfconscious and laugh at how you know you might come off at the same time?) What’s new is the aforementioned production – it sounds kind of brittle and disposable in a way they never have before.

“Love It If We Made It” checks some of the same boxes. It takes the band’s long-stated affection for The Blue Nile and delivers the most Blue Nile-esque song in their catalog so far (truly nailing the “Downtown Lights” synth sound). But really, it’s only their approximation of that band’s nocturnal, minimal-but-lush sound. There are Kanye- and Trump-referencing lyrics; an anthemic, pleading chorus; a festival-ready breakdown. It’s too big to be anything but them.

The more artsy experiments are in full force. The first half of “How to Draw / Petrichor” takes a bonus track of the same name from I Like It When You Sleep…, keeps the auto-tuned vocals, and reinvents it with Sigur Ros twinkles. Then it brings in a straight-up UK garage beat – maybe a bit more blown out than the genre’s smooth signifiers, but a garage beat all the same – with a pitch-shifted, mutated vocal that wouldn’t be out of place on an MJ Cole track, if that was a James Blake production pseudonym. “The Man Who Married a Robot / Love Theme” is “Fitter Happier” for the iPhone generation. Narrated by Siri, it tells the (somewhat deadpan, surprisingly funny) of a man who falls in love with the internet. He dies – the listener is then whisked away by a lovely orchestral arrangement.  

“Sincerity is Scary” and “I Couldn’t Be More in Love” introduce new, more obvious R&B elements to the band’s sound. The 1975 have always used gospel-style backing vocals to great effect – the former’s chorus can act as the new Exhibit A. The latter is the kind of late-night, early-90s ballad that you hear on that one radio station from where you grow up that uses the word ‘Smooth’ somewhere in the name. The sonic touchstones are perfect; again, there’s a hint of Bon Iver, this time via keyboard sounds that would be cheesy if they didn’t work so well (ala “Beth/Rest”). It’s also a great vocal from Healy, with a soaring key change taking the song home.

“Inside Your Mind” and “Mine” are ballads (and maybe the least essential songs on the album). “Mine” is a lovely-but-meandering foray into jazz; “Inside Your Mind” sounds like it could have been on the Armageddon soundtrack, if not for a processed, redlining guitar pattern that adds a sharply digital intrusion to an otherwise somewhat organic song. But remove them from the big picture and, for whatever reason, things just don’t quite work the same way.

Album closer “I Always Want to Die (Sometimes)” does better. Numerous reviews mention Britpop as a touchstone, but while it exhibits a similar penchant for adding strings for maximum melodramatic effect, it’s far more turn of the century cinematic blockbuster than Oasis b-side. This makes sense, as David Campbell, the man responsible for the string arrangement on Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”, is responsible in the same capacity here. It will surely set festivals alight – at least cell phone light.

While those cobbled-together elements make the band more interesting than other radio-friendly contemporaries, it’s important to remember what sells these records – ruthlessly catchy pop singles. “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” takes some of the Daft Punk references from I Like It When You Sleep’s “The Sound”, adds an autotuned vocal, a shuffling garage beat, some smooth 80s synths, and piano stabs straight from classic house to deliver the album’s first knockout. The second, and most obviously 80s-indebted track, is “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)”. It’s sound is pure nostalgia, calling back to the dreamy, M83 circa-Saturdays = Youth-aping of their earliest EPs. Its chorus is pure bliss. But it wouldn’t be The 1975 if there wasn’t something a bit more to both – together, the songs form the most obvious references to Healy’s rehab-necessitating struggles with heroin. Love them or hate them, they are, if nothing else, the catchiest songs of the year about the struggles of opioid addiction – by far.

The 1975 have managed to carve themselves a niche in pop music that both wholeheartedly embraces the modern tropes of that genre and simultaneously rejects them in pursuit of something more interesting. Maybe they aren’t really that impressive: ‘interesting’ is just shorthand for ‘They actually try shit’ in pop music’s risk-averse, algorithm-worshipping climate. Perhaps ‘eclectic’ is a nice way of saying ‘This band’s albums are a mess.’

But even if those things are true, it’s refreshing to hear a band of stature (I’m calling it here first: they will be second from the top on one of the days of Coachella 2019…at worst, top four) continue to do whatever they artistically please. Ambition makes The 1975 the band they are. It’s not always pretty, and not always easy to tie a bow around, but it’s the same thing that makes A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships a welcome addition to their catalog. Here’s hoping the next album, Notes on a Conditional Form (slated for release in May), is more of the same.

Words by Andrew Ledford