James Mellen delivers his verdict on The 1975's fourth LP
While The 1975's somewhat self-congratulatory expression of 21st century disaffection on 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships dove more into electronic production, dancehall, house and the ambient textures of their previous records, the third LP from the Wilmslow quartet and its dip into mildly more experimental waters still felt overwhelmingly safe. To make things worse, even with a shorter runtime than sophomore record I like it when you sleep..., the group's third album felt both overblown and bloated, and worst of all forgettable.
Fast forward to May 22nd, 2020 and after over a year and a half of postponement and the release of *eight* singles, The 1975’s eagerly anticipated 22-track album Notes on a Conditional Form finally dropped. What we received might just be their most confusing effort yet.
The fourth iteration of 'The 1975' startup sound kicks this one off, but instead of the familiar ‘go down, soft sound’ felatio metaphor of previous records, we instead are presented with a poignant speech by none other than climate activist Greta Thunberg. Accompanied by twinkling piano and ambient swells, Thunberg continues to push her message that we need to act in order to slow climate change, with The 1975 putting their platform to good use. It is a hell of an opening track, and Thunberg’s spoken delivery is excellent. This is then followed up by first single 'People', a sub-three minute industrial glam rock track (with Refused-inﬂuenced undertones) as frontman Matty Healy screams over driving drums, massive guitar and colossal bass tones. As the first song on the album, it is fantastic. The 1975 have never been a band to shy from change, and this is an incredibly stark contrast to the 80s inspired guitar pop we had become so accustomed to. While some might think they are trying a little too hard, it does set a foundation for the album as a project desiring reinvention above all else.
Following People, 'The End (Music For Cars)' emerges as an orchestral instrumental, sounding as though it had been lifted directly out of a film score. Arranged by Healy, drummer/producer extraordinaire George Daniel, and assisted by the return of previous collaborator, composer Sam Swallow, this again shows that The 1975 can pretty much dabble in whatever genre they want and, for the most part, end up with a solid outcome. While it is a stunning, cinematic piece of music, the odd placement on the tracklist is a negative for me. Unsurprisingly, The End would have worked far better amongst the albums final act rather than in its opening minutes, particularly when considering the whole ‘end of an era’ vibe The 1975 had so clearly been attempting to curate with Notes.
'Frail State of Mind' follows as the first of the albums's experimental use of garage rhythms, with Matty crooning on top about anxiety over piano and synth layers. I am not a fan of the track on its own, but it does foreshadow what a lot of the album will do. Daniel’s production is a clear highlight of Notes, however, the album does go onto to use incredibly similar beat patterns throughout the album on tracks 'Having No Head,' 'Yeah I Know,' 'Bagsy Not In Net' and 'I Think There’s Something You Should Know.' Despite the slightly lazy beat choice, this instrumental is a stellar example of what George can do with a laptop. Pulsing synth layers hover over a constant house beat before a delicious beat switch which has George pushing us into deeper, darker house territory. 'Bagsy Not In Net' is another stranger cut, fusing a similar garage beat with a beautiful sample of ‘Sailing’ by Christopher Cross. Effects-heavy vocals are splashed throughout the track, and despite being a nice song, I would not have been disappointed to find this song cut from the album.
That leads nicely onto the biggest flaw of Notes on a Conditional Form, its runtime. Their longest studio effort to date, both in terms of tracklist and listening time, this record is an hour and twenty minutes long. That's not to say that lengthy records cannot justify their length, with albums as phenomenal as Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly or The Smashing Pumpkins's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness both nearly exactly as long as Notes, but on the 1975's latest LP a lot of the songs sound similar, especially the instrumental and garage-tinted cuts. It’s almost a little repetitive in parts. While there aren’t any straight-up bad songs, many could be easily cut by a minute or two (see 'The Birthday Party' and 'Having No Head'). The extended intros and outros of many songs are clearly there to afford George complete creative freedom with his production, but I would not be surprised for many listeners to get bored. As a musician and producer myself, I love it. But to someone who wants a good, concise record? Maybe not so much.
Enough of negative, let’s talk positive. One of my favourite non-singles is 'What Should I Say.' Heavily pitch-shifted vocals over a pop-house beat is never my usual cup of tea, but it is a refreshing contrast to some of the generic garage beats smattered throughout the album. A lush vocal sample takes the lead in parts, and once again George’s glistening production is unrivalled. 'Shiny Collarbone' features legendary dancehall artist Cutty Ranks over another garage beat, but I thoroughly enjoyed this bouncy cut [Ed: me too].
'Don’t Worry,' a duet with Matty’s father, actor Tim Healy, is a sweet piano ballad which straight away gave me some 22, A Million vocal harmony vibes. Written by Tim when Matty was a child, it fits beautifully with the whole retrospective theme that Matty has mentioned in interviews. 'Me and You Together Song' and 'If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)' are probably two of my favourite singles by them, ever. 'Me and You' is a 2000s power-pop throwback, a simple song with not a lot of variation, but the mix and tonality is quite lovely. Lyrically, Matty is simply singing a love song; "We went to winter wonderland, and it was shit but we were happy." It is a joyful track which is a nice juxtaposition against the darker, moodier electronic cuts throughout the tracklist (though editor Ben disagreed heavily in his review of the single back in January). 'Too Shy...' features an intro with guest vocals provided by the incredible FKA Twigs. This song is a straight up 80s throwback, and could have easily been a b-side from the 'I like it when you sleep…' era. Compressed guitars, a driving synth bass and a sax solo. The verse is structured brilliantly, and the chorus is the direct consequence of Matty’s ear for a good, arena-ready hook. Adam Hann’s guitar work is impeccable, and again gave me a real sense of nostalgia back to the band's earlier records.
Cards on the table, I’m a huge Phoebe Bridgers fan, so excuse the bias, but her vocal work on 'Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America' is one of my highlights of the entire project. Phoebe’s smooth delivery sits beautifully with Matty’s voice, while the tune displays the most minimal production on the entire album. Acoustic guitar, vocals and some light background synths equate to a lovely acoustic track, and once again Mike Crossey’s input showcases his insane ability as a mixer. Bridgers also provides backup vocals on (the slightly jarringly mixed) 'Then Because She Goes,' the Pinegrove-esque country blues cut 'Roadkill' and acoustic track 'Playing on My Mind.' Final track, 'Guys,' is one of the simplest on the record. A soothing chord progression paired with a simple backbeat is always a winning combo. Lyrically, this one is simply a love song to your mates, which, given the current lockdown climate, reduced me to tears with some of the lyrics. While the song, like a few on the record, doesn’t really go anywhere, it is a fitting closing track and rounds off their fourth album beautifully.
Notes on a Condition Form is definitely going to divide long time The 1975 fans. It is experimental in places and pretty much departs from any of the group's familiar sounds. It journeys through electronic music, garage, emo-revival, indie rock, orchestras, industrial glam rock and singer-songwriter ballads, and despite the surface-level randomness of some of the genres, it actually flows surprisingly well. It is their most interesting listen to date, and definitely is one that will take time to digest. However, a slight lack of creativity on some of the garage-inspired tracks pull this record down. Sections and even songs could have been cut from the album, and the result of keeping them in leaves the album bloated, and perhaps even demonstrative of a cynical Views-like album length. Regardless, Notes on a Conditional Form will be The 1975’s most polarising album to date, and it is refreshing to see a band of this relevant magnitude continuing to experiment more and more with genre. While NOACF may not be as accessible as previous ventures, it is an interesting listen and does seem a fitting end to the ‘Music for Cars’ era.
- 7.8 -
'If You're Too Shy (Let Me Know)', 'The End (Music For Cars)', 'What Should I Say'
James Mellen is a very bored student in his final year of compulsory education, waiting to study music production and performance at degree level. He is passionate about music, guitars and music. He also watches films sometimes.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in South Wales.