New Music

The 1975 – ‘Notes On a Conditional Form’ Album Review

The 1975 are one of the most divisive bands on the planet. People seem to either feel a deep-rooted love for the group or a seething disgust towards the pseudo-boy band. No matter what your preferred leanings, The 1975 have reinvented themselves as something far greater than the Tumblr-circa-2013-sad-boi-aesthetic that governed much of their early career.

On their newest album, Notes On a Conditional Form, we see a band that is far from comfortable in their position. Their music has become scattershot, leaping towards all of their influences at direct speed. One second you think you’re listening to a Fugazi track, then you’re transitioned through a Brian Eno-esque interlude into a pop take on Burial’s early dubstep outings. This will inevitably leave the most devout fans perplexed.

The 1975

Much like the album’s title, The 1975’s Notes On a Conditional Form simultaneously glimpses at a million different things.

The album was meant to follow up their previous artistic breakthrough, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, by only a couple of months. That didn’t happen. As the final part of the band’s Music For Cars era, Notes… always had the tedious position as a bookending chapter that was meant to encompass all that had come prior. From indie boy-band, through to Bowie plastic soul and My Bloody Valentine shoegaze, then all the way back to anthemic calls-to-arms about drug addiction and societal collapse, The 1975 never really seemed to fit in anywhere. Trying to cull all these elements down into an era-defining album was never really possible. The album ended up being consistently delayed, rebranded with new album covers, and described by frontman Matt Healy as both their quietest and loudest album yet.

Following A Brief Inquiry…, we already knew that The 1975 had two albums up their sleeve; companion pieces that were part of the same oeuvre. With the tentative release date of May 2019, it looked as though the band, and especially frontman and drummer/producer George Daniel, were on a creative spree in a similar manner to The Clash circa Sandinista. In April 2019, Healy described the work in progress to NME, saying, “I’m an active emo man I suppose I’d call myself, I think that bands when they get to a stage that maybe we’re in they wanna kind of graduate into being like a massive rock band whereas we wanna graduate like into being a small emo band, if you know what I mean”. The 1975 don’t really have any choice in that they already are an absolutely huge rock band. All we could do was wait for whatever came next.

That tentative 2019 date passed us by, and over a year later and seven singles, we have Notes. An album of sorts, or playlist, or musical library, whatever floats your boat. All seven (yes seven) singles released prior embodied completely different and shocking moments. Listening to each single upon release, the only suitable reaction seemed to be “where the hell did that come from”. Each one of the singles showed us that Notes wasn’t going to have the singular battle line of their last couple of albums.

It is exceptionally hard to pin down Notes. After numerous listens, I am still trying to wrap my head around the album. If A Brief Inquiry was viewed as the band’s OK Computer, this is certainly not their Kid A. Notes has more in common with the likes of Hail to the Thief, if we are using Radiohead comparisons. Long, eclectic, sporadic and confused while seeming to hold elements of pure brilliance scattered through its excessive length. The record is long, 80 minutes in fact. To truly grasp the albums full-field view you have to sit down and not do anything other than listen and ponder.

With an absolutely gargantuan 22 songs, it was almost hard facing the sheer vastness of possibilities the band had to offer. Healy explains in a recent Apple Music video that the record itself was a way to discuss “the fractured nature of the album which is Sisyphean, which is the point”. If that’s what Healy attempted to achieve, he got exactly what he wanted. However, therein lies the brilliance of the record. Healy wants you to pick and choose what interests you. He wants you to devour everything, much like how he assimilates pop culture in creating his whole aesthetic.

the 1975 matt healy gender-balanced lineups
Photo: Dani Hansen

Beginning the album with a speech by Greta Thunberg is a powerful call to arms. Deviating from the classic “Slow down, soft sound” intro of their previous albums, Thunberg’s presence is the encapsulation of punk. Blasting directly into the album’s first proper single, People, you have a feeling that this band is capable of anything they set their mind to. People is one of those songs which I can only imagine took a lot of the band’s fanbase off guard. Personally, it was genius. It didn’t feel out of place at all. It also showed Healy’s craftsmanship as a lyricist:

Well, my generation wanna fuck Barack Obama
Living in a sauna with legal marijuana
Well, girls, food, gear
I don’t like going outside, so bring me everything here
It’s a little eery that Healy discusses elements of incel culture that somehow manage to reflect the world’s current situation. Currently living with drummer George Daniel, having bought a new dog called Mayhem and playing too much Fifa, Healy seems to be becoming exactly what he’s railing against. Art imitates life, I guess.

The record bounces from the electronic excursions through to acoustic mediations at a rapid pace. Songs like Playing On My Mind and the heart-wrenching duet with Phoebe Bridgers, Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America, feel beautifully intimate. Having No Head may be a bizarre adventure but the band pull off club electronica with ease. There are a number of these electronic interludes but somehow they manage to ease the gravitas of the album, tainting the air so the listener isn’t always in need of complete attention.

What Should I Say and Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy) harken back to the band’s earlier styles while updating them with vocal mutations and electronic pulsating rhythms. Roadkill and The Birthday Party delve into country and rockabilly and somehow manage to not feel out of place. A personal favourite surprise is Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied which features gospel choirs and ruminations on fame while feeling uplifting in a near Kanye-circa-Ultralight-Beam way.

Me and You Together Song is kitsch and feels a little like filler material even though its lyrics do pose a number of interesting questions about settling down in a relationship that you aren’t fully at ease in. Then Because She Goes is the band trying out their full Slowdive/My Bloody Valentine feel if they had been pushed through a vocoder. Late album highlight, If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know), showcases everything most people either hate or love about this band. It’s bombastic, horn ridden, funky and 80’s indebted all the while discussing an online sexual relationship.

By the time you reach the final track, Guys, you feel as though you’re listening to a band try out every musical style under the sun. Ending on a beautiful love letter to being in a band and his best friends, we get a sense that the whole album is a love letter to music on the whole. Healy explains in the Apple Music documentary, “When you have this poorly defined blueprint for what you do the only thing you can do is go with your heart, and that is what the record is.” 

Matt Healy live at Laneway Festival

This album shows a sheer obsession with music. Healy and co want you to listen to Brian Eno and Pantera, however, they will make it easier for you by showing you everything at once. In an age where we experience everything at once, this album feels right at home. It’s excessive and ridiculous. It’s silly and brilliant. It doesn’t care what you think about it and craves to be loved.

There may not be a Love It If We Made It, Love Me, or I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes) on this record, but that’s not necessarily the point. Every song, amazingly, has something fresh, interesting or beautiful about it. For an album consisting of 22 songs, that is a breakthrough in and of itself. The closest comparison album is Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. Much like that record, Notes is neither a defining statement or a complete encapsulation of a singular artistic voice. Instead, it’s an artist working at full pelt, wanting to try a little of everything, all the while evolving and growing.

Personally, I love this band. From being brought up on music spanning punk rock and Britpop all the way through to grunge and back to hip-hop, The 1975 don’t seem to fit with any of my musical leanings. However, they have aggressively paved their own road to success, expanding and growing with every release. That’s more than can be said for most bands nowadays.

Notes On a Conditional Form will be a little confounding at first. However, after a few listens, the smaller moments begin to blossom. In an era of short attention spans and a culture of continual consumption, this record is undeniably timely. If anything, this record will only grow in stature over the next year. We may eventually consider it the band’s masterpiece. However, for now, take an hour off from whatever you’re doing. Go and sit quietly and undistracted. Put this record album and feel everything all at once.