Music Reviews
Notes on a Conditional Form

The 1975 Notes on a Conditional Form

(Dirty Hit / Polydor) Rating - 6/10

The fact that a band can play their own instruments, write their own songs, win critical acclaim, and still be a beloved pop group seems to be a curiously 20th Century phenomenon. Obviously, The Beatles are the archetype here, but until the era where groups were chosen by committee—whether an industry Svengali or the public at large—it wasn’t unusual for the world’s most popular acts to be a bunch of friends who grew up together in the same city.

All of which makes The 1975 something of an anachronism here in 2020. And to decipher why they’ve been able to break that mold look no further than their magnetic frontman, Matty Healy. Somehow, Healy manages to straddle that line between everyman and aspirational star but then, his disarming frankness reveals him to be a tangle of apparent contradictions. He uses his platform and privilege to elevate others but will often horribly misjudge the situation. He’s fostered an intimate and intense relationship with the band’s fanbase while singing songs about struggling to build human connections. He’s capable of the most tender and loving statements yet clearly struggles with monogamy and fidelity. He takes himself far too seriously and can also casually drop a hilarious one-liner into a track like it’s nothing. But then, that’s humanity in a nutshell; we’re all a paradoxical mess.

On The 1975’s fourth album, Notes on a Conditional Form, the group tries to cover as much ground as possible. If the prospect of 22 tracks over 80 minutes fills you with dread, then you’re right to be apprehensive. If the fact that the opening track—based around a Greta Thunberg speech—brings you out in hives, then you’re in good company. No-one’s suggesting addressing the climate emergency isn’t a worthy cause and it’s certainly a bold statement, but from a listener’s standpoint, it’s very clear the message is being put before the music here. Sure, Thunberg’s closing remarks (“It is now time for civil disobedience. It is time to rebel.”) leading into the discordant rage of following track, People, creates a thrilling frisson on first listen, but it subsequently loses its impact. Put it this way: there’s a good chance when you listen to this album in the future, you’ll start from Track 3.

It’s tempting to conclude the “conditional form” the title refers to is our temporary stay on earth, and it would certainly explain why the record is so messy and unfocused. Healy has described the record as “nocturnal and cinematic,” but it’s difficult to work out exactly what that might mean. Some tracks seem explicitly designed to be played in stadiums, and the main quality that links NOACF to cinema is the fact the instrumental pieces feel more like incidental music to soundtrack a scene rather than fully formed songs.

In fact, NOACF looks to be a concept album in need of a decent concept. More than most records, it jumps all over the place. The first four tracks are, in order, a Bono-esque political statement, a hardcore punk racket, a grandiose string-laden instrumental, and a breezy electro-pop ditty about anxiety. Whilst ambition is to be applauded and albums can explore several styles, this skittish approach means it’s difficult to get a foothold on what the album is about.

That’s a real shame because when NOACF is good, it’s very, very good. The fact the album promotional campaign saw seven singles released in the space of nine months may have dulled their impact somewhat, but there are some phenomenal tracks amongst those. Me & You Together Song is a peppy pop-rock number that seems to have come directly from the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack. Compared to the angst and dissatisfaction that hangs over the album, it’s a relative respite and it captures both the heady intoxication of lust and underwhelming drudgery of British life thanks to the killer couplet, “We went to Winter Wonderland / And it was shit but we were happy.” If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know) is, in its own way, a brief inquiry into online relationships, as well as being the best song Simple Minds never wrote. At the other end of the spectrum is Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America, a sparkling acoustic number peppered with hints of warm brass. With its wry observations on attempts to reconcile a queer identity with religious teachings and bone-dry wit, it’s potentially the best song the band have ever done.

Elsewhere though, it's unremarkable instrumentals, slightly grungy college rock in the vein of It’s a Shame About Ray, and frustratingly gutless electro. The truth is, there just aren’t enough ideas here to justify NOACF’s length, and the back half of the record really starts to drag in places. Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy) has a pleasant enough melody, but there was no need to turn it into a reggae track, and Having No Head is six minutes of nothing much in particular.

What saves NOACF from being a chore is Healy himself. Whilst his success rate isn’t perfect, his candidness and creativity mean your attention is always held. The Birthday Party is simply a woozy meander with a hint of banjo until you listen closer and realize that Healy’s singing about the difficulty of resisting temptation and his thoughts are spiraling in opposition to the staidness of the music. You may even feel sufficiently emboldened to forgive him for the line, “Drink your kombucha and buy an Ed Ruscha.” Similarly, there’s a country element to Roadkill, where Healy’s ruminations of homophobia and the pressures of being a public figure take the track to the next level. Finally, there’s an almost triumphant element to closing track Guys, a soothing ballad dedicated to the rest of The 1975, where he declares: “The moment that we started a band was the best thing that ever happened.”

Notes on a Conditional Form is a fantastic 12 track, 45-minute album. It’s just a shame that The 1975 decided to make it into a 22 track, 80 minute one. There’s certainly enough going on to recommend repeat listens, but the quality level waxes and wanes so much throughout that it won’t take you too long to find your favorites and start returning to just those. For those who have keenly followed The 1975 up to this point, business as usual then, but if The 1975 truly want to chronicle our conditional form, maybe they’d do well to take fewer notes next time.