Matty Healy always said the first three 1975 albums would tell a story: his own, from teen dreamer living in an affluent hinterland of Manchester (2013’s self-titled debut) to pop star in the first flushes of fame (2016’s ‘I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’) and the Ziggy-ish conclusion to come.
Instead, The 1975 took to the studio to produce not one but two albums, the first of which is ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relations’, with the second, ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’, to come next year. And this third album doesn’t just tell the story of Matty’s maturation as promised, it touches on modern politics, our relationship with technology and the entire Millennial experience, too. In doing so, it alights on bubblegum pop (‘TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME’), glitchy electronica (‘How To Draw / Petrichor’), balladry (‘Be My Mistake’), neo-jazz (‘Sincerity Is Scary’), trad jazz (‘Mine’) and all points in between.
If this is the continuing story of Matty Healy, things have either been going right on course or falling apart, depending on your preferred flavour of rock star. This is the album on which Matty’s self-destructive tendencies have taken hold, the cocaine psychosis of 2016’s ‘UGH!’ swapped for the rock clichés of heroin addiction, rehab, therapy, windswept solitude in a Northants residential studio and sun-drenched isolation in LA.
It’s a rich run of life experience that informs the album in surprising ways, not least ‘It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)’, a ‘Pretty In Pink’-style power-pop banger that sings dreamily about heroin as if it were a great lost love (“All I do is sit and think about you / If I knew what you’d do / Collapse my veins wearing beautiful shoes / It’s not living if it’s not with you”). It’s funny, clever and refreshingly honest, and it’s not even the most confessional thing here – that would be a toss-up between ‘Be My Mistake’, a heart-wrenching, guilt-sodden song about on-tour loneliness and infidelity, or ‘I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)’, the massive closing track, which is so personal and intense it might just leave you in tears.
So on the one hand it is a personal album about Matty’s experience, but it’s also an album about love in all its forms (even for delicious opiates), love being the thread that links its genre-hopping tracks. And there’s a macro scale to the album, too, one that holds a mirror up to society as well as to Matty’s pretty fizog. The towering ‘Love It If We Made It’ stands and points, aghast, at real-world horrors that have somehow been normalised, most jarringly “a beach of drowning three-year-olds” and the words of the President Of The United States Of America, repeated verbatim, “I moved on her like a bitch“, casting no particular opinion and asking the listener to draw conclusions instead.
As the album’s intermission, ‘The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme’ is a poem narrated by Siri (yes, the one that lives in your pocket), a Vonnegut-like allegory about loneliness, data, social media and internet addiction, concerning a man, SnowflakeSmasher86, and his friend, The Internet. “When the man got sad, his friend had so many clever ways to make him feel better / He would get him cooked animals and show him the people having sex again / And he would always always agree with him,” it goes.
It’s easy to see ‘The Man Who Married A Robot’ as the album’s ‘Fitter, Happier’, and it’s not the only moment in which ‘A Brief Inquiry’ begs comparison to Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece ‘OK Computer’. That record, also the band’s third, took a gloomy view of modern life when the internet was a luxury few had access to. Two decades later, The 1975’s album, written from the perspective of four digital natives, doesn’t so much condemn the march of technology, information and social media so much as accept it and debate it. It’s a nuanced record for a time when life’s shades of grey are darker and closer in contrast than they may have previously been, and it’s no less powerful as a result.
And from those greys, colour. Electronic flourishes to revel in. Gospel choirs to lift the soul. Every song offers an unexpected treat: the lovely ‘Surrounded By Heads And Bodies’ skips into a time-shifting drum beat where a chorus would normally sit; ‘I Like America & America Likes Me’ is Kanye-level in its virtuosic use of autotune; ‘Inside Your Mind’ blends ‘90s post-rock with torch-song balladry and ‘I Couldn’t Be More In Love’ is a pitch-perfect 1980s wedding song pastiche, one of a handful of numbers that are so wilfully big, bold and emotional you expect upcoming tours may require six encores to bash each of them out with the appropriate gravity. Perhaps the biggest surprise comes in the form of ‘Mine’, a Cole Porter-influenced jazz number that evokes golden era Hollywood, Disney soundtracks and finger-clicking crooners while reflecting wryly on modern life (“I fight crime online sometimes / I write rhymes I hide behind,”), a jarring dissonance that feels like hearing a song you’ve known your whole life for the very first time.
‘Mine’ is a breathtaking piece of work, and one of many here that proves that The 1975’s core songwriting team of Matty Healy and George Daniel are not just the most accomplished and creative duo working in pop right now but the closest thing we have to a present-day Lennon and McCartney, a pair whose golden touch makes them near-enough unassailable. Clever and profound, funny and light, serious and heartbreaking, painfully modern and classic-sounding all at the same time, ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ is a game-changing album, one that challenges The 1975’s peers – if, indeed, there are any – to raise their game.
So Healy had set out to describe his own experience, but in doing so has produced an artefact that sums up millennial life, a magpie pop masterpiece that could only be made right now and right here. And for every stupid joke you’ve heard about avocados and house prices and safe spaces and jazz hands, this is a piece of art that shows another side to a generation, one of achievement, wit and humanity in the most confusing of times. Clever boys.