The 1975’s ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ is a fascinating, adventurous end of an era – review
If you're a 1975 fan, you're not just expecting their new album to sound a little bloated, a little self-indulgent, and a little cheesy - you want it to. Those are words that have gotten thrown at The 1975 every album cycle since their 2016 sophomore LP I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It, but The 1975 don't succeed in spite of those things; they succeed because of them. They're constantly pushing themselves to do more and more, always seeming like they're gonna go spiraling off the tracks at any second but always managing not to. Whether or not you like what they do, even their haters would have to agree they're never boring. On a 1975 album, there's always something unpredictable around the corner, always some idea that they've never tried before and are desperate to try now. In the leadup to their fourth album Notes On A Conditional Form, the band's extremely charismatic frontman Matty Healy hosted a podcast where he interviewed some of his heroes, and the cast included legends in noise rock (Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon), ambient music (Brian Eno), minimalism (Steve Reich), and emo singer/songwriters (American Football's Mike Kinsella, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst), as well as an artist whose band is as chameleonic as the 1975 (Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie) and the needs-no-introduction Stevie Nicks. That's an eclectic list for anyone, let alone one of the biggest rock bands in the world, and the influence of almost all of those artists can be heard on Notes On A Conditional Form... and then some. The 1975 have swagger, attitude, and very catchy songs, so it's no surprise that they're as famous as they are, but they clearly care about crafting classic albums in the traditional sense, and preserving the work of the important musicians who came before them who (mostly) can't headline arenas on a regular basis like The 1975 can. They've gotten as far as they have because, in 2020, there isn't a single other band doing all that they do, and Notes On A Conditional Form only further confirms this.
The 1975 have said that Notes won't be their last album, but that it feels like the end of an era to them and that it might be a while before they make another one. It makes sense that they'd look at it this way. Their self-titled 2013 debut made them famous but -- at least in America -- they seemed to get shrugged off by critics. I Like It When You Sleep was such an ambitious leap forward that it was kind of impossible to keep shrugging, and the tightened-up 2018 album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships was the moment that The 1975 officially became canonized -- more than one reviewer compared it to OK Computer. That probably put more pressure on The 1975 to deliver a worthy followup than ever, but they also had announced Notes (with a different title) at the same time as Brief Inquiry and they had already started recording it before Brief Inquiry was released, so it seems like some of these songs were born out of the same creative hot streak that birthed its predecessor. In some ways it comes off like “part 2” of Brief Inquiry rather than another intentional leap, but that’s underselling it. It’s just as good as its predecessor, and it finds the band continuing to push forward.
Notes is unmistakably the work of The 1975, and it's got some songs that recall parts of the last two albums, but it's also full of ideas they had never tried before. Genre-hopping is nothing new for The 1975, but they're really pushing "I listen to everything" to its limits on this one, and -- impressively -- it always seems to work. They've developed such a distinct personality that they sound like themselves whether it's a loud rock song, a soft acoustic song, or a downtempo electronic song. Notes also makes better use of ambient tracks, which have appeared on 1975 albums before but on this one are being used as more effective segues than usual, connecting something like the shouty post-punk of "People" to the future garage of "Frail State of Mind" to the jangly ballad "The Birthday Party" almost seamlessly. And that example is just what happens in the first quarter of this 22-song album, which continues to throw more and more shit at the wall as it goes on.
The 1975 were always sort of a "rock band" who didn't necessarily sound very rock in the traditional sense, but Notes finds them successfully trying their hands at time-tested, guitar-oriented subgenres more than ever before. Alongside the punky "People," they've also got shoegaze ("Then Because She Goes"), alt-countrified emo ("Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America," an emotional opening-up about bisexuality that finds Matty duetting with Phoebe Bridgers who sings backup on 3 other songs too), twang rock ("Roadkill"), and romantic '90s jangle pop ("Me & You Together Song"). At the same time, they're expanding their electronic palette too. The aforementioned "Frail State of Mind" and the similar "I Think There's Something You Should Know" find The 1975 mixing future garage with pop music, but then they've also got a song like "Yeah I Know," which plants them firmly within the orbit of early SBTRKT, early James Blake, and Untrue-era Burial. They also dabble in house ("Shiny Collarbone") and Jon Hopkins-style IDM ("Having No Head"), and then there's the album's secret weapon, "What Should I Say" (one of two songs featuring FKA twigs), a late-album cut that finds The 1975 crafting 2020's most addictive dance-pop song since Caribou's "Never Come Back." And because it's The 1975, they make sure to work in a little '80s pop cheese too ("If You're Too Shy [Let Me Know]") (The other song featuring FKA twigs). It can seem like they tried to cram in every popular style of music except hip hop, but come to think of it, there's a part on "Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied" where Matty is kinda rapping.
On paper, it sounds like it should be too much, too all over the place, but The 1975 pull it off. They have a way about them where one idea is always kind of bleeding into the next one -- their electronic songs are too emo for electronic music, their emo songs are too pop for emo, their pop songs are too experimental for pop, etc -- which helps tie things together. Even more importantly than that, they're at a point in their career where, if The 1975 are releasing a song, it's gonna be catchy. They're clearly fascinated with comparatively obscure styles of music, but they're still a pop band, and right now they're a pop band who are firing on all cylinders. 22 songs in 80 minutes with ambient and electronic interludes worked in is long and a lot to take in, but the album doesn't drag partially because the songs go down so easy and stick with you so quickly. Seven of these songs were released as singles (as far back as August 2019) and those already feel like songs that've been out forever. It won't be long before a handful of these other songs feel the same.
Notes is also as all-over-the-place lyrically as it is sonically, with love songs ("Me & You Together Song"), political songs ("People"), a lot of social anxiety songs, and more. Sometimes Matty's words can shake you to your core (like when he opens up about his sexuality on "Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America"), and other times you wonder if he's gone too far (is he allowed to sing that line about Pinegrove in "The Birthday Party"?). But no matter what he's singing about, he has as much a way with words as he does with catchy melodies. He avoids cliches, captures genuine emotion, and conveys it like he's speaking directly to you. This is probably overall the saddest 1975 album yet, and Matty's at his best when he's at his saddest and most honest. "We're fucking in a car, shooting heroin / Saying controversial things just for the hell of it" was the most memorable line on the last album; this time, Matty sings a different tune: "I never fucked in a car, I was lying."
Notes On A Conditional form isn't perfect, but you don't really come to The 1975 for perfection. Maybe it could lose a few songs, maybe sometimes they bite off more than they can chew, but it's still a thrill to hear them going for it, unafraid of how miserably they could end up failing. There's no risk without reward, and The 1975 are a rare arena-level modern rock band who take major risks. We'll just have to wait and see how long until they decide to make another album -- and what unpredictable directions they'll probably choose to go in -- but if Notes really is the end of an era, I'd say it's a pretty damn fine ending to what has been a very exciting chapter of this band's career.
Notes On A Conditional Form is out now via Dirty Hit/Interscope. Stream it and check out a bunch of videos from it and some pre-quarantine live photos below. You can also watch a new short film about the album on Apple Music and check out an "enhanced" version of the album on Spotify with behind-the-scenes video content.