ALBUM REVIEW: The 1975 occasionally brilliant yet immensely frustrating on latest record

The 1975 are nothing if not ambitious. Over three increasingly grand, varied albums, frontman and public mouthpiece Matty Healy, fellow songwriting and production standby and drummer George Daniel, lead guitarist Adam Hann, and bassist Ross MacDonald have run with a list of foundational influences – including ‘80s pop, ‘00s to ‘10s indie, and late ‘90s to early ‘00s emo – and explored seemingly every thread that could possibly join them. The result is a distinctive, omnivorous body of work that is self-indulgent, sure, but oddly communal – an embodiment of the connections sown by the internet, where the file-sharing and streaming eras the band came of age in made entire worlds of music suddenly, and easily, accessible.

In interviews, Healy comes across as a well-read and ultra-restless creative mind, hoovering up influences and spitting them out in bids to hold his attention. It’s sometimes maddening, but it’s intrinsic to the band’s identity, as evidenced by a recent podcast series of interviews with Healy and his heroes, including Stevie Nicks, American Football’s Mike Kinsella, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and Brian Eno. When the band is on point, their music embodies the pure, heady rush of creativity that comes from combining such disparate sources. Unfortunately, despite being the longest discography entry yet at 22 songs, Notes On A Conditional Form also has the fewest of those moments. 

That’s not to say Notes is devoid of them, however. Its one-two punch of traditional opener “The 1975” and glammy, attention-grabbing, Placebo-channeling punk song “People” set an exciting stage, with the former even featuring a new twist: instead of repurposing its previous lyrics with new music, as on every prior album, it foregrounds a patently frank, clear-eyed speech from climate activist Greta Thunberg on the requirements to save our planet. But rather than a harbinger of things to come, the songs instead introduce a series of ping-ponging ideas, loosely bound by stylistic similarities.

The album can be roughly grouped into a few funnels: UK garage and house explorations (“Yeah I Know,” “I Think There’s Something You Should Know,” “Having No Head,” “What Should I Say,” “Bagsy Not In Net”); soft, Bon Iver-ian folk with some rootsier touches (Phoebe Bridgers-featuring “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” “Playing On My Mind”); a heavy dose of late ‘90s to early ‘00s guitar rock (country-esque cut “Roadkill,” closing love letter to bandmates “Guys,” janglier, dreamier companion to “Absolutely (Story of a Girl),” “Me & You Together Song”); uplifting, gospel-R&B (“Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied,” Temptations-sampling “Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)”) and orchestral, quasi-ambient flourishes that both stand alone or weave into other tracks to form vague connections to otherwise divergent material (“The End (Music For Cars)” and “Streaming” being examples of the former). 

Evident throughout is the distinct sheen of the past, particularly the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. This was by design: Healy told Pitchfork that “With [Notes On A Conditional Form], we wanted to reconnect with our roots a bit. That’s why it feels very much like the music we grew up on.” For listeners of a similar age to Healy and co., there’s comfort to be found in these recognizable sounds, and Notes’ standout moments combine the best of these worlds in new ways for the band. “Frail State of Mind” echoes the vaguely tropical garage feel of A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” and adds a welcome dreaminess; Cutty Ranks-featuring house banger “Shiny Collarbone” treads some new, harder dance territory, and, along with the beautiful, shoegazey blast of “Then Because She Goes,” is a rare too-short moment on the album. There’s also “The Birthday Party” – a languid, banjo-featuring stroll through cultural references and funny, self-deprecating personal details (don’t miss the hilarious, psychedelic, and quite creepy video).  

There’s only one song that hits the pop pleasure epicenter of “The Sound” and “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” – the twinkly ambience-turned Tears for Fears anthem “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know). This combination of old, new, and ruthlessly effective shows what The 1975 can accomplish when on point: putting together unlike pieces in fresh, exciting ways. There’s just not enough of it. 

Over the previous albums, even the things that didn’t work kind of worked in context. Now, for the first time, the grab bag feels more extraneous than interesting. Healy admitted to Billboard that making a more distilled, sonically cohesive album ala The Strokes’ Is This It “maybe… is a challenge for me,” but one he would like to tackle. On this immensely frustrating, often intriguing, occasionally brilliant, and ultimately exhausting album, the band asks a simple question – Can the center really hold? – and spends 80-plus minutes arriving at a simpler answer: No, it can’t. Notes On A Conditional Form is a behemoth – one that also feels like the logical endpoint to The 1975’s sprawling approach to album-making.

 Words by Andrew Ledford