The 1975’s fourth studio album is 80 (eighty) minutes long. If that sounds like your idea of hell, you can stop reading this review now: you’re not going to like this record. Should you, like many of my fellow Picky Bastards, find Matty Healy to be a total gobshite, his lyrics to be pseudo-intellectual and the band’s synth-pop sound to be saccharine in the extreme, Notes on a Conditional Form won’t change your mind. I, however, am a convert to their cause. On listening to last year’s Mercury Prize nominees, I was blindsided by their 2018 album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. I thought, what if this hyperactive pop band were given the same benefit of the doubt we give to ‘serious’ artists whose lyrical concerns are similarly centred on contemporary society? Maybe, then, this genre-hopping stuff is actually…pretty good?
The outspoken Healy is a big part of why I find this band so weirdly fascinating. He is both a participant and chronicler of our always-on generation, and, as the last album showed, has the potential to create one of its defining documents. And The 1975 have left nothing out in their effort to do just this. The band have spoken about how this is very much a maximalist “fuck it” record, with 22 tracks recorded across 16 studios, and collaborations with diverse artists from Phoebe Bridgers to Cutty Ranks. With such unbound ambition, it had the potential to be a To Pimp a Butterfly or a Be Here Now. What we’ve got (unfortunately/thankfully) is neither.
Firstly, the good stuff. A big reason for A Brief Inquiry’s success was the way the band would just try anything. Like scrolling through your social media feed, they’ll wildly flick between subjects and genres simply because it feels right, and NOACF continues this approach to sometimes thrilling effect. For instance, the juxtaposition of Greta Thunberg’s monologue with the industrial punk rallying cry of “People” is a killer intro. From this they segue from symphonic interlude, to UK garage, to gentle folk. It’s a fine opening salvo.
In fact, this free-spirited exploration makes for a really enjoyable first half of the record. The band most often delves into alt rock and UK garage/house, and it is to their credit that they sound compelling in either mode – whether it’s the frenetic beats on ‘Yeah I Know’ or the tenderly acoustic ‘Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America’. This first half steadily builds to a peak with my two favourite songs on the record: ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’ and ‘Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied’. The latter kind of illustrates the divisive nature of this band. Yes folks, Healy is rapping the bridge in auto-tune. And yes, this should be sacrilegious behaviour. But you know what? It just works – only serving to add to the honesty of his lyricism.
Yet, enjoyable as it is, what the first half or so of this record lacks is a coherent narrative. And those hoping that side one’s many loose threads would be tied up on side two of this double album are to be sorely disappointed. As the last 35 minutes of NOACF drags on, it begins to reveal itself as less an album and more a dump of unconnected ideas from extensive recording sessions. Generic pop songs (‘Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)’, ‘What Should I Say’) coexist with incidental dance experiments which belong on an electronic side project (‘Shiny Collarbone’, ‘Having No Head’) and bland bonus track fare (‘Don’t Worry’).
Some smart lines (“I won’t get clothes online ’cause I get worried about the fit / But that rule don’t apply concerning my relationships” from ‘Playing On My Mind’) and the odd snappy tune (such as the charming 80s pop pastiche “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’) save the record from petering out without any redeeming features. But the inclusion of so many average tracks shows that for all their musical chops, The 1975 are severely lacking in discipline.
By the end of NOACF, the message is unclear. The lacklustre second half makes the more interesting political and personal songs on the album’s first side seem like ideas that the band got bored with. But maybe that’s the perfect message; instead of making a grand artistic statement about our wired generation, on Notes on a Conditional Form The 1975 ended up embodying our distracted selves.
Words by Tom Burrows