The most interesting and confusing major release by an arena-selling guitar band in a long while
Dillon Eastoe
10:26 18th May 2020

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From the arresting Greta Thunberg speech released in July, to the shock and awe of opening their Reading 2019 set with a visceral premiere of lead single ‘People’, The 1975 were setting the stage for an album that was geared to be important. Then the pandemic happened and suddenly a new 1975 album feels like less of a big deal. Even the existential threat of climate change, tackled in Greta Thunberg’s opening speech, while still prescient has lost some of its potency in the shadow of the more immediate global risk of coronavirus. The news cycle accelerated past the band just as they prepared potentially the most defining album of their career. It’s just as well then that the rest of the album largely leaves that overt political edge with the last howl of ‘People’.

After the swelling orchestra on ‘The End’ fades out, we get to the crux of the record on ‘Frail State of Mind’. The 1975 delve into UK garage for this disorientating social anxiety trip. Cleverly borrowing melodic phrases from ‘TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME’, that track’s tropical fun is flipped on its head for a jittery auto-tuned ode to overthinking. Notes On A Conditional Form’s lyrics are dominated by Matty Healy interrogating his relationships with friends and partners, but mostly his relationship with himself. 

‘The Birthday Party’ nods its head to Pinegrove’s alt-country shuffle as Healy ponders whether he could, or should, party like he used to. ‘Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America’ sees Phoebe Bridgers duetting on a cutely strummed folk song. Lyrically it’s from the same headspace as ‘If I Believe You’, envying religious people their faith and the freedom it can afford them, “Fortunately I believe, lucky me”.

The more personal vibe on Notes… is best exemplified by comparing its biggest banger to ‘Love It If We Made It’ (the most impactful track on A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships). ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’ rides a camp play on Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ in a joyous bop that doesn’t get any more serious than getting your kit off over FaceTime (maybe they did predict lockdown after all…). Inadvertently, the shoe-gazing introspection that characterises the majority of the record enhances rather than diminishes the potency of the music, arriving at a time where across the world we deal with being shut inside, our own thoughts often the only thing to keep us company.

Notes On A Conditional Form has very much been written and recorded in public, with the drip of songs and changing release date reflecting both the bands lurching idiosyncrasies and the practical impossibility of recording an album during a worldwide tour. As a result the production is all over the place and makes for the most diverse record they’ve put their name to; you’ll be kept on your toes by a myriad twists and turns.

‘People’ and ‘Then Because She Goes’ find The 1975 at their rawest guitar form, stripped of all bells and whistles and just tracking the instruments they play live. On the flip side, ‘What Should I Say?’ and ‘Shiny Collarbone’ dive into dance beats and processed vocals. Somewhere in the middle you have flirtations with UK garage on ‘Frail State of Mind’, ‘Yeah I Know’ and thrillingly on ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’, featuring a beat you could imagine Craig David riding to the top of the late-90s charts. ‘Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)’ takes a dive into dub and reggae rhythms in another experiment that really shouldn’t work but just….does? ‘Roadkill’ is a pleasant surprise, drawing on twanging country rock and burnout on US interstates, still finding room to call back to early ‘75 hit ‘Robbers’.

Of the tracks yet to be released, ‘Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied’ is the pick of the bunch, and will surely become one of the fan favourites. A jazzy piano intro gives way to a gospel hook that channels George Michael’s iconic ‘Freedom’, before morphing into Matty trading spoken verses with an auto-tuned baritone alter ego. It’s a musical shapeshifter that covers a lot of ground but never loses sight of that brilliant chorus, still making time to nod to Prince before it waltzes off. The Purple One’s spirit is the Mufassa to Matty’s Simba for a voluptuous guitar solo. You also get some of Healy’s best lyrical riffs on his public persona, big mouth and fan culture, “You don’t fuck with your poor fans, you meet the rich ones to expand your floor plans”.

Ending on a slightly cheesy note, ‘Guys’ provides a cute counterpoint to early hit ‘Girls’, Matty strumming an acoustic guitar while he tells his bandmates how much he loves them. It’s soppy, indulgent and a bit naff but we can forgive that when the indie jangle is so comforting. For all their recurring motifs, they’ve rarely dealt so clearly in nostalgia; if this really was the final 1975 record (as Matty hinted last year) it’d be a warm final stanza.

After a debut that was met with scorn by certain critics, The 1975 gained their respect with a perfect pop album on I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, before A Brief Inquiry… earned widespread acclaim, and you can’t help but feel when listening to Notes… that the band are having fun with this reversal in fortunes. Across a whopping twenty-two tracks Matty, George, Adam and Ross let their imaginations run wild as they continue to poke fun at what a guitar band ‘should be’, always befuddling the expectations built around them. 

A deep dive into Healy’s neuroses, the record benefits from not trying to explain anything ‘big picture’ about the world it arrives in, which with the gift of hindsight would have firmly dated its composition in the Before Times. Instead of the rebellious clarion call that ‘People’ hinted at, Notes… is a lockdown companion that can’t focus on one thing for longer than it takes to record a pop song, providing a distraction that will reveal more with each listen. Notes On a Conditional Form isn’t the most important thing in the world right now, however it’s easily the most interesting and confusing major release by an arena-selling guitar band in a long while. The UK’s best band continue to delight and bewilder in equal measure.

Notes On A Conditional Form is released on 22 May 2020 via Dirty Hit.

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