The 1975 – ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ review: the sound of a band with no sonic boundaries

This sprawling album, which encompasses everything from electronica to anarcho-punk, sees Matty Healy take a wrecking ball to his own ego

There has always been a masterplan, The 1975 assure us, for the so-called Music For Cars era (of which their early EPs, 2013 debut ‘The 1975’, 2016 follow-up ‘I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’ and 2018’s ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ are all a part). And of which the brand new ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’, their long – long – delayed fourth album, is the concluding chapter.

Each part tells a story – some of it true, some of it not – about the band, or more specifically about Matty Healy, the lyricist, co-writer and firebrand frontman, an artist so invested in his role as the latter that last year he told NME that he’d happily die on stage for his art and beliefs.

The narrative arc follows Healy from his origins – not ordinary, being the child of two reasonably well-known TV personalities, but not totally exceptional either, being a guy from a town near Manchester dreaming of being a rock star. The dreaming was documented on that polished, poppy debut, all spunk and hubris. The second album was an inflated version of the reality that followed its Number One success – a gleeful step into the circus of fame that conspicuously created a new musical messiah for the woke kids. ‘A Brief Inquiry…’, meanwhile, found Healy looking out to the world from his newly lofty platform – at politics, life and the internet. Lots of the internet.

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And this one? It’s everywhere and nowhere. It’s the kind non-ending that happens in real life, rather than the one that might be written in a movie script. And it’s all the more brilliant for that.

There are as many Healys here as there are musical styles, on an album that ranges from Burial-inspired electronica (the thrilling, mind-bending ‘Shiny Collarbone’, which features vocals from Jamaican dancehall musician Cutty Ranks) to knock-kneed indie-pop (‘If You’re Too Shy (Then Let Me Know)’), searing anarcho-punk (‘People’) and all points in between. There are even orchestral interludes such as ‘The End (Music For Cars)’, giving the album the feel of a soundtrack for a Disney movie about a rock star who can’t make his mind up what his band sounds like.

For fans of The 1975, this is hopefully not a daunting prospect – they’re a group who, so to speak, discover that their audience likes apples and so serve them oranges on purpose. Talking to NME during the long gestation of ‘Notes…’, Healy said that the intention was to create an album that sounded more like The 1975 by pushing the extremes, and in that they’ve succeeded.

But they’re also a band who find cohesion in chaos, often through mood or lyrics, and by dint of the latter always being thoroughly heartfelt. A pervading theme among the many strands on ‘Notes…’ is that of Healy as a kind of Man Who Fell To Earth figure, askew from the world he finds himself in, sometimes amused, sometimes bemused. ‘The Birthday Party’ – one of a whopping six tracks released in the run-up to the album – finds him floating around a gathering in a hotel room, not really there in spirit, enjoying the feeling of using the tricks he’s learned on the road, such as turning the tap on in the bathroom to disguise the noises.

Elsewhere, he’s bent on deconstructing the entire artifice of his carefully curated persona: “I never fucked in a car, I was lying,” he sings, on ‘Nothing Revealed/Nothing Denied’, undermining the band’s totemic ‘Love It If We Made It’. “I do it in a bed lying down.”

The album is toe-curlingly confessional at times, but always relatable. On the catchy ‘Roadkill’ we hear details of Healy’s “tucked-up erection” and his yearning for the days when sexual encounters were more sporting: “I know this is how I get paid but it’s not really how I wanna get laid.” On the cutesy-pie ‘Me & You Together Song’, we hear about a dream in which “we went to Winter Wonderland and it was shit but we were happy,” which will be keenly felt by anyone who’s entered Hyde Park’s festive circle of hell.

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Sometimes we find him in the throes of a full-blown existential crisis, as on the yearning acoustic ballad ‘Playing On My Mind’, which sees him muse, “Will I live and die in a band?” You can’t quite detect from the tone whether he still thinks that would be a good thing.

But that’s not to say this is the sound of wallowing, or self-pity – more that it’s totally, refreshingly unfiltered – musically and lyrically. Nobody can tell The 1975 where their boundaries lie. No one can tell them to stay in their lane. And as such, they push at everything. Where some tracks have lyrics to chew over, others employ words only as a means to set a mood. ‘Yeah I Know’, probably the best of the itchy, glitchy electronic tracks on the album, has just two lyrics – “Pick a card / Hit that shit” – which Matty delivers in a barely recognisable vocal, fidgeting, restlessly, over broken beats.

As deeply as Matty voyages into his own head, we also see him making real-world connections too. Only once in their history have The 1975 invited a guest to appear on a record, and that was No Rome on ‘ABIIOR’s ‘TooTimeTooTimeTooTime’.

On ‘Notes…’, FKA Twigs lends her extraordinary, extraterrestrial vocal talent to two songs (‘If You’re Too Shy…’, ‘What Should I Say’). And Matty’s dad, the actor Tim Healy, appears on ‘Don’t Worry’, a song he wrote the basis of when Matty was a child. The celebrated Phoebe Bridgers, meanwhile, sings verses on a track that crystallises Healy’s views on religion – historically as much a recurring theme on his social media feed as in his lyrics. The elegiac ‘Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America’ describes a search for a higher power, a conflict with a non-binary identity and a desire to be a small part of a bigger thing. The latter is something that we might never have expected from Healy in his pomp.

So yes, ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ takes a wrecking ball to Matty’s ego. And yes, their homework is late and it shows. This album, clearly, is the work of a shifting period for the band, one that begins with an ambition to save the world via Greta Thunberg’s stirring mandate to the band’s fans (‘The 1975’) but ends in the tight embrace of the band itself on the sweet, sentimental ‘Guys’. Were the screen to fade and the credits to roll on the band’s career, ‘Guys’ is the song that would be playing.

But, oddly enough, it’s worked out for them in the end. As the human race goes to hell in a handcart due to the coronavirus crisis and ensuing self-isolation, The 1975 have made the album at the end of the world.

Timing has frequently been on Healy’s side – see how prescient ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ seems now that online relationships are all we have left. While there are undoubtedly lyrics here that’ll spook you out – “I don’t like going outside so bring me everything here” on ‘People’; “Go outside? Seems unlikely,” on ‘Frail State Of Mind’ – ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ doesn’t attempt anything so crass as to define a time. It’s a bullet dodged in that respect, as it’s landing precisely when the world has shunted on its axis, a global paradigm shift that no songwriter could have predicted.

Instead of issuing another state-of-the-world album, The 1975 have somehow put out an album made for introspection and headphone listening and dancing around your living room, something deep and sprawling and occasionally silly to dig deep into over many listens, during which your favourite track will shift on a daily basis. Something that requires time and attention – something just right for now.

As for what’s next: the paradigm shift may well have played into the hands of 1975 fans –Matty and George are holed up in the studio and working on new material for the band. The end of this era is nothing to fear. This album – this go-anywhere, do-anything record – doesn’t so much tie up loose ends as create more. As we all might be wise to remember right now, there are no endings – only new beginnings.

Details

Release date: May 22

Record label: Dirty Hit

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