review: The 1975 – ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’
After a generic and cheesy (but popular) 2013 debut, The 1975 made one thing very clear on their 2016 followup I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it: they might still be a cheesy pop rock band, but they refuse to be a generic one. That album is overflowing with ambition -- it's often too much ambition for The 1975 to handle, but it's exciting to see a young, popular rock band shaking things up as much as The 1975 did on that album, which fits tons of ideas (from '80s new wave revival to M83-inspired ambient excursions) and occasional brilliance ("The Sound") into a 70+ minute album. "There are no big bands who are doing anything as interesting as us right now," frontman Matty Healy boldly and now-infamously told Billboard earlier this year. It's not true, but it shows off the kind of egomania that can drive an artist to at least try to write a masterpiece, and that level of motivation is less common among popular rock bands than it used to be. You can tell that The 1975 wanted A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships to be the biggest and best rock record in the world, and it's got all the signifiers of an album that aims to be a classic, with its radio-baiting pop singles matched by its critical acclaim-baiting experimentation. Like its predecessor, I don't know if I think it's quite as good as Matty Healy (or NME) thinks it is, but I do think it's a pretty damn solid album and the band's best yet. The brilliance is more than occasional, and while the lengthy ambient stuff on the last album was respectable, The 1975 benefit from Brief Inquiry's more fat-trimmed approach. They've actually fit more different types of music on this album than either of its predecessors, but it goes down easier than both of them.
As on the last album, the single-y songs sound sugar-sweet but hide deeper, darker content beneath their shiny exteriors. "Love It If We Made It" seems like a pleasant pop rock stomper that even your parents could nod along to, but it smells like teen spirit right from its opening lines: "We're fucking in a car, shooting heroin, saying controversial things just for the hell of it." "Give Yourself A Try" pairs an easily digestible U2-ish chorus with verses that tackle depression, addiction, suicide, and STDs. "It's Not Living (If It's Not With You)" comes off like just another Hallmark love song on the surface, until you realize it's actually about heroin, and it finds time to work in a little disgust about the political climate too. The singles on this album also shy away from pop bombast just a little more than the ones on I like it when you sleep did. That's even true for the auto-tune fest "TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME," which sounds so purposefully bubblegum that it comes off almost like a commentary of the form.
It's hard to say which of the two albums has better pop songs (there may still be nothing on Brief Inquiry as instant-classic as "The Sound"), but Brief Inquiry's more experimental side is definitely superior to that of its predecessor. Overstuffing your album with long ambient songs isn't enough to make it smarter than your average pop album, but Brief Inquiry's successful genre-hopping is. Like on their last two albums, this one opens with their eponymous intro track "The 1975." Same lyrics as the last two times, but this time it's reworked to sound like a Bon Iver/Kanye West collaboration, and it perks you up in a way that their last two stabs at it never did. "How to Draw / Petrichor" is a glitch pop song that sounds like Jon Hopkins remixing Sigur Ros, and it's more effective than The 1975's past Sigur Ros impressions. The 1975 have always been a little emo, but they've never gone full Dashboard Confessional like they do on "Be My Mistake" and "Surrounded by Heads and Bodies," and those songs sound destined for whatever the modern equivalent of away messages and mixtapes for your crush are.
The most surprising twist on this album, though, is that it dips its toes into jazz. Jazz has been experiencing a pretty significant renaissance in the UK band's home country recently, and while it often finds its way into hip hop and electronic music, there really aren't many big rock bands incorporating it the way The 1975 are. They pull it off, too. Of course, one major predecessor for this -- and a band The 1975 currently seem pretty keen on imitating -- is Radiohead. In case you were wondering if it's a coincidence that the robot voice on internet love song "The Man Who Married a Robot / Love Theme" sounds like OK Computer's "Fitter Happier," Matty Healy confirms the homage was very much intentional. They definitely aren't anywhere close to Radiohead's level just yet (even if NME called this album "the millennial answer to OK Computer"), but some parallels to that band are starting to emerge. When The 1975 were dropping "Sex" and "Chocolate," you couldn't have predicted the wide scope of A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, just like "Creep" didn't foreshadow OK Computer. The 1975 have had one of the most unpredictable career trajectories of any popular rock band in a while, and even if you're not a fan, there's no denying that they've exceeded expectations.
As with the last album, Brief Inquiry makes The 1975 a great gateway band. If they're a formative band for young listeners, and their music helps turn those listeners on to Radiohead, Sigur Ros, and Bon Iver, then they've done a lot more for the culture than, like, Imagine Dragons or Maroon 5. But they're more than that, too. They're really becoming a force of their own -- Matty Healy's lovable, boy-ish tone is increasingly unique and once you become a sucker for it, there's no turning back. Brief Inquiry is charmingly flawed, as memorable albums often are, but the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. The 1975 say they're already working on their next album (planned for 2019), and at the rate they're moving forward, it feels safe to set expectations high for it.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
comes out tonight at midnight (11/30) via Dirty Hit/Polydor/Interscope. In the meantime, you can hear five songs from it below:
UPDATE: The entire album is out now: