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Album review: The 1975’s ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ jumps among genres, yet remains cohesive

(Courtesy of Dirty Hit)

“Notes On A Conditional Form”

The 1975

Dirty Hit

Released Friday

By Brooke Cuzick

May 22, 2020 4:42 pm

The 1975 has never been known for playing by the rules.

Continuing to follow the trend of pushing the limits, its fourth studio record “Notes On A Conditional Form” walks the line between sonic originality and the classic UK garage rock the group has been known for since its 2013 debut. But on this newest release, the quartet – led by singer and primary lyricist Matty Healy – grounds listeners in the unequivocal, yet old-school, importance of listening to an album holistically. Each of its 22 tracks meticulously trace a path from ballads to borderline post-hardcore to hip-hop and house music, stretching far outside of the synth-heavy sound the band was established on.

What could easily be written off as a laborious listen masterfully guides an unpredictable tracklist full of seamless genre shifts. Even from the start, the band’s album staple – but never identical – opening track “The 1975” fuses soft chimes with a climate change-focused speech by activist Greta Thunberg. The track’s insistent tone effortlessly bleeds into Healy’s rowdy vocals and screeching electric guitars in the second track “People.”

Early on, it’s the record’s track order that gives the listener room to breathe. Healy, a mastermind of bridging songs sonically and lyrically, brings together seemingly disparate tracks. It is no mistake that the quiet strength of Thunberg’s “It is time to rebel” presages Healy’s desperate pleas for older generations to believe that “the young surprise people” in The 1975’s grungiest track yet.

[Related Links: Album review: The 1975’s new album explores personal struggles, offers comfort to listener]

As it progresses, “Notes On A Conditional Form” is an expedition of Healy’s confused romantic relationships, his distaste for screen-heavy society and his frazzled mental state. But the mostly instrumental tracks peppered throughout – “Streaming,” “I Think There’s Something You Should Know” and “Shiny Collarbone” – provide a welcome road map for the band’s ambitious genre experimentation.

The bulk of the instrumental interludes follow a similar structure of swelling strings aided by smooth and twinkling synths, crafted largely by the band’s drummer and producer George Daniel. But those in the album’s second half toy with a reliance on computer-generated drums and auto-tuned vocals that become their own instrument, hinting at a shift in genre.

“Streaming” provides an uninterrupted transfer into the equally smooth chimes and kick drum of “The Birthday Party’s” winding storytelling. Meanwhile, the morphed take on beat-driven house music in “Shiny Collarbone” acts as a place marker for the end of the band’s stint on hip-hop tracks. The song, in tandem with “I Think There’s Something You Should Know,” effectively bookends the most starkly atypical The 1975 songs: the hip-hop-verging tracks “Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied” and “Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy).” These transitions allow Healy to test his hand at genre-bending while tactfully categorizing the nearly 90-minute album.

Taking his chance on genre-bending tracks, the singer astonishingly ventures into acoustic dad folk rock in the 10th track “Roadkill.” In his own twist on twangy guitar notes usually reserved for careful, tiptoeing country lyrics, Healy instead substitutes edgy but dreary lyrics about sex, drug addiction and American judgment of his glitzy British rock star persona. While singing over a notably American country-style beat, Healy comically acknowledges that even though his songs have reached radio popularity, Americans are still “mugging (him) off all across the nation.”

[Related Links: Album review: Tame Impala blends past and future in highly anticipated fourth album]

But nostalgic moments don’t get lost in the album’s dynamic shifts. While track order helps listeners follow the otherwise whiplash-inducing change among hip-hop, screamo and house music, it also allows the band to revisit its garage rock roots. The record’s tender lyrical moments are exemplified in sonic callbacks to the mid-2000s when The 1975 was a group of plucky punk rockers operating under the name Drive Like I Do.

A warm electric guitar progression and yearning romantic lyrics in “Me & You Together Song” represent a classic sentimental sound for the group members who have been together since their early teens – a perfect soundtrack for devoted listeners who have been “In love with (them) for ages.” The 16th track “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” achieves a similar sonic feat, but it cleverly roots itself in modernity with its technology-driven love story of a man and a woman who he sees “online all the time.”

After a heartwarming blast from the past sprinkled with a soundscape from the present, listeners who follow the track order are rewarded with Healy’s own sentimentality. This time it’s purely for himself rather than the coy nostalgia his fans crave. The singer duets with his father on the sweet piano track “Don’t Worry” from his childhood. The lullaby of a track takes a step back from the serious themes woven through the record and humanizes the rockstar Healy has made himself out to be.

Taking that a step further, closing track “Guys” is an emotive love letter from Healy to his bandmates. There isn’t an inking of cheesiness in the song’s intention. Rather, The 1975 sidesteps the rock stigma which often stops lyricists from writing a love story beyond the realm of romance.

In the concluding song, The 1975 may be “the best thing that ever happened” to Healy, but the band’s committed undertaking to find a newfangled take on a tired genre makes it pretty special for listeners around the world too.

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Brooke Cuzick
Cuzick is the Music | Fine Arts editor. She was previously an A&E reporter.
Cuzick is the Music | Fine Arts editor. She was previously an A&E reporter.
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