The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form, review: a good short album, buried inside a muddled long one

Neil McCormick
The 1975's frontman Matt Healy - WireImage

If you wanted to create a classic guitar band perfectly attuned to today’s digital pop world, they would probably look a lot like The 1975. Formed at school 17 years ago, but still young enough to be just touching 30, the Manchester quartet maintain the swagger of a tight-knit gang that's so central to rock culture. Fronted by an impishly charismatic, motormouth singer fully invested in the woke controversies obsessing his social media generation, they write singalong anthems wrestling with big subjects: environmental collapse, communications breakdown, and whether to commit to a relationship or just take drugs and shag your way around the planet with your mates.

So far, so rock and roll. But crucially, The 1975 operate in the sonic shorthand of our smartphone pop era, with heavily processed vocals dressed in layers of shiny, electronic froth devoid of any unfashionable rock bite or crunch. The 1975 are a guitar group who no longer sound like a guitar group at all, adopting the essential form and style of a rock band while tailoring content to the earbud age. They should be the band of the future. If only they didn’t make it all sound like such a torturous existential challenge that you are left wondering why anyone would ever want to be in a band at all.

Notes on a Conditional Form is the fourth album from The 1975, who have ascended through pop charts and social media forums to arena-level stardom, as purveyors of catchy singles and adventurous albums. In grammar, of course, the conditional form is a term for describing speculation of cause and consequence, real, possible or fanciful. “If” sentences, to put it simply (something the 1975 seem rarely inclined to). And so perhaps the album itself should be considered a very big if, in the sense that it almost completely abdicates any decisive form to present multiple possibilities without resolution. Which is a fancy way of saying it’s a mess.

2018’s critically acclaimed A Brief Enquiry into Online Relationships reached number one in the UK, topped many polls and left the band poised on the edge of something special. If (here we go again) they had delivered another great, crowd-pleasing album, they could have become the biggest band in the world. Instead, they have made a mistake that so many bands have made before them, by starting to believe their own hype.

Yes, it’s their self-indulgent double album, a sprawling, 22-track, 80-minute farrago of doodly experiments and half-realised ideas, encompassing glitchy house, frenzied emo, orchestral ambience, country folk, cocktail jazz, gospel and hip hop blended through their trademark dreamily melodic, heavily processed pop rock.

It opens with a long (nearly five minute) ambient noodle showcasing a speech about the environment from a monotone Greta Thunberg (powerful the first time you hear it, considerably less so with each repetition) then charges into some shouty punk followed by what sounds like two and a half minutes of an orchestra warming up whilst waiting for a tune to arrive. There’s some shuddery Radiohead-lite dubstep with a cut-up voice proposing "you go eat that s---" (Yeah I Know), a blandly bubbling house groove featuring unfathomable interjections from Jamaican dancehall toaster Cutty Ranks (Shiny Collarbone), a long instrumental that sounds like someone locked the drummer in a cupboard with Brian Eno’s back catalogue (Having No Head), a sincere but gauche alt folk duet with Phoebe Bridgers about thwarted homosexuality in the Midwest (Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America) and a blast of FKA Twigs singing a snatch of opera. Every now and again an actual song breaks out, in which solipsistic vocalist Matt Healy grapples with finding meaning in tumultuous times.

Titles like Frail State of Mind and What Should I Say are indicative of Healy’s own uncertainty about his role as a rock star. “Will I live and die in a band?” he wonders on Playing on My Mind, a fragile rumination on the over-examined life. Closing track Guys attempts to answer that question with an affirmation of the joys of musical brotherhood, even though Healy’s perpetual tone of querulous self-doubt undermines its anthemic drive. It could be the first song about running away to join the rock and roll circus that would make you contemplate staying at home to study accountancy instead.

If soul-searching uncertainty is Healy’s default position, it is also the core of his appeal to an audience every bit as confused about their place in our oversharing, over-connected and existentially threatened world. Some of the lyrics sound like the first thing Healy scribbled in his notebook, but elsewhere there is a spine of funny, probing songs about life on the road (The Birthday Party, Roadkill) and the need for human connection (You and Me Together Song, Tonight, Too Shy). He is certainly not a bad lyricist, just badly in need of an editor to point out that “soil just needs water to be, and a seed” is a poor line construction that puts the emphasis on the soil rather than the seed, whilst “searching for planes in the sea, that’s irony” is not actually ironic, just silly.

The trouble is, The 1975 have entered an all-too-familiar bubble of success where the dissenting voices of editors, producers and old-fashioned A&R advisors can no longer penetrate. They have produced this album themselves, writing and recording on tour, in 16 different studios, and apparently deciding that every last scribble and sketch was of equal merit. In other words, they have behaved like every over-inflated rock band before them.

Notes on a Conditional Form is not terrible, just muddled. It's as confused as the singer himself about what it means to be in a band in a post-rock era, where pop is assembled by bedroom producers on home computers and beamed around the world via viral video. Maybe the album itself is a conditional form in the streaming age, a tentative playlist for fans to construct their own versions of the band. Eight of these songs have been released already as promotional tracks (or singles, as we used to call them), and they hang together in a very different way, presenting a band of energetic and assured songsmiths, blending jangly indie emo rock with a processed digital pop sheen, adorned with brash and colourful 1980s-style synth hooks.

When they're playing to their strengths, the 1975 provide a robust platform for Healey’s witty, romantic, confused yet always committed interrogation of the essential artifice of his role as reluctant rock star with a conscience, shouting into a void already filled with the echoes of other voices. Like many double albums, there is a fine single album here fighting to get out. If only.

Notes on a Conditional Form is released by Dirty Hit and Polydor Records