Review | The 1975 - Notes on a Conditional Form
The 1975's "Notes on a Conditional Form" is a fascinating mess.
Like many critics, I was only a casual fan of The 1975 until hearing "A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships". The album explores how people use screens, drugs, and (in one of the album’s forays into science fiction) robots to mimic human connection; it’s a big conceptual album grounded in personal alienation and loneliness. It reminded me – in the best way – of Spike Jonze’s film “Her.” When I heard that “Notes on a Conditional Form” would be the 1975’s longest, most experimental and most ambitious album yet, I hoped The 1975 would create another thematically cohesive record – perhaps even a concept album or rock opera – which experimented with different genres and sounds. While I went into “Notes on a Conditional Form” excited to hear The 1975 expand their sound, the experimentation ends up feeling scattered and frustrating more than visionary or bold. Most of the record feels half baked: The 1975 throws around lots of good ideas, but develops very few.
While “Conditional Form” includes songs in many different genres, many of the more experimental tracks don’t feel developed beyond an initial concept. Instead, Matt changes sounds like a chameleon: excellent at imitating different sounds, less good at presenting an original take on a genre. “People”, a loud, angsty piece of 2000s-era pop-punk. While the band convincingly channels the bratty anger of pop-punk – the track could easily fit into an old Blink-182 or Sum 41 record – the track’s criminally short and underdeveloped. “People” might have made sense as one track in a pop-punk record, but on “Conditional Form”, The 1975 don’t give us any context to make sense of the shift in style. The song stands out awkwardly in the tracklisting between a Greta Thunberg speech set to low-key electronic music and a soaring, gorgeous instrumental piece. By the time listeners get accustomed to “People”’s satirical lyrics and brash instrumentation, the song’s over and The 1975’s moved onto a different style entirely.
Even when the songwriting’s not developed, The 1975’s still excellent at creating enveloping sonic palettes. “Then Because She Goes” sets Matt’s distant, yearning voice against a textured, shoegaze-y instrumental soaked in reverb. The song creates a small-scale, concentrated version of the nostalgic sadness embodied by bands like REM and The Cure. Listening to it briefly feels like stepping into a sad movie scene. “Roadkill”’s a rollicking, guitar-driven indie rock song with a bit of a country twang. Unfortunately, both songs are barely over two minutes long and, like “People”, don’t have much in common (at least sonically) with any other songs in the tracklist.
The 1975 still has an ear for catchy melodies and talent for structuring potent, powerful pop songs. The band showcases their songwriting ability on seven or eight longer, more fully developed, low-key electronic dance tracks that feel like a mini-album inside the album. It’s easy to imagine a more cohesive and developed (but slightly less interesting) album composed of songs like “The Birthday Party”, “I Think There’s Something You Should Know”, “Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied”, and “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know).” “Nothing Revealed” sounds like the 1975’s version of a hit R&B song, complete with a guest rapper. The soulful piano and distant horns subtly speak to Matt’s loneliness and apathy; the off-kilter beat and laconic rapping reminded me of Tyler the Creator’s “Flower Boy.” “I Think There’s Something You Should Know” transitions gorgeously from a slick, twinkling synth soundscape to a bassy, throbbing beat and back again.
Unfortunately, on almost all of “Conditional Form”’s catchiest, most well-realized songs, the production and mixing stifle The 1975’s songwriting talents. On the album’s second single, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know),” the instrumentation blends into a pleasant, over-compressed mash of twinkling synths and rubbery beat. The thin horns blaring over bright, blurry synths immediately reminded me of a commercial I’d recently watched. It’s the musical equivalent of a sugar rush, conveying a vague pleasantness without any depth or edge. Again, the lyrics – nervous, self-deprecating, very meta description of an online relationship – contain notes of anxiety, dry humor, and sadness that the music doesn’t have enough depth or range to capture. “Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied” places the looping drum machine at the front of the mix, making the song feel stiffer and more robotic than it really should, and undercutting the soulful vibe set by the piano and horns.
While these complaints might sound like nitpicks, all these production choices made the album sound just a little more sterile, a little less vulnerable, a little colder. While I longed for a rougher, darker, more surprising album, I also have to admit that the sterile feeling’s probably purposeful. While “Conditional Form”’s sonically all over the place, the album does have thematic cohesion: over and over again, Matt talks about interacting with people through machines and, personally, feeling distanced from his own experiences by technology and drugs. The music feels like Matt pushing the boundary between what sounds genuinely, humanly beautiful and what sounds inhumanly perfect. Aspects of the music set up a confessional tone: we get stripped-back songs that emphasize soulful pianos, acoustic guitars, and Matt Healy’s gentle vocals. But on most tracks, these rawer, more human elements are mixed against cleanly produced electronic soundscapes and backed by rattling drum machines. Vocal manipulation is slathered onto Matt’s soulful voice. Several times, high, twinkling notes start off sounding pleasant and natural – like chimes – and slowly transform into unnaturally high, insistent beeping. There’s an interesting tension embodied in “Conditional Form” – between the natural and the synthetic, between personal stories and collective societal experiences, between what’s confessional and what’s manipulative. How do you talk sincerely about your life when you feel separated from your own experiences? What does it mean to be sincere when you don’t feel like you can be honest with yourself? Can an experience heavily influenced by drugs and screens really be considered a personal experience? A more focused album could have built an emotional arc around one or two of these questions. As is, “Conditional Form” raises more questions than it answers. Best Song: "Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied"
Worst Song: "Streaming"