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February 2021
Album review

The 1975 - Notes On A Conditional Form

An album that rewards investment, The 1975's fourth full-length is by far their most ambitious to date.
Label: Dirty Hit / Polydor
Released: 22nd May 2020
Rating: ★★★★★
The 1975 - Notes On A Conditional Form
Published: 9:24 am, May 19, 2020Words: Ali Shutler, Stephen Ackroyd.

“If you can’t make an album in six months and you’re in one of the biggest bands in the world, what are you fucking playing at?” - Matty Healy, The 1975 (Dork, November 2018)

That was the plan. Six months to follow up on the most ambitious album of the year; the genre-hopping pop culture playlist that saw The 1975 transcend their own neon boundaries. ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ might have been a record so expansive it kicked down the critical fire doors, but with that done, the rest is easy, right? Right?!

A year and a half later, and said full-length has finally arrived. Initially expected in the early summer of 2019, soon it became ‘before headlining Reading’ in late August. Then, February 2020. Or maybe April? No. May. May, in the middle of a global pandemic. What could possibly be more them?

For most, this would be proof of a botched job. Overwrought second guessing, excess for excess’ sake, or behind the scenes issues that limit expression. The 1975 have always worked differently. A band of ideas in the moment, often thrown into the most public places with only a cursory pause for thought, the entire Music For Cars era - two albums, back to back - has always been, in part, about the context in which creativity thrives. Announced in a blaze of excitement, the first half was already mostly together. Seven months between the first soon-to-be-ubiquitous posters and the release of ‘A Brief Inquiry...’ was the structured first phase. Taking to the road in early 2019, with plans to record as they went - that was provoking deliberate chaos.

But chaos is where instinct thrives. By unmooring themselves from the safety of what they knew, ‘Notes...’ is The 1975 reacting to the push and pull of their own creative reflex, making another gigantic leap from the band they once were to the cultural hearthstone they have so quickly revealed themselves to be.

Recorded in countless studios, on tour, between engagements and right up (and indeed past) its own closing bell, ‘Notes...’ isn’t like other albums. 22 tracks in length, it shifts in theme and emotion, ideas blooming wherever fertile ground has been found. It’s testament to the band - and especially Healy and drummer-slash-production-genius George Daniel - that no matter where that urge leads, it’s not only fully and gloriously realised, but also definitively theirs.

It’s also, uniquely for the band, more collaborative. Their opening statement - a self-titled, previously (mostly) instrumental theme - is notable this time around for its vocal presence. Climate change activist Greta Thunberg isn’t just providing words to match music; she’s the first of a number of contributors who bring something new to The 1975’s shared universe. In her instance, it’s a social responsibility; a demand to reform and rebel. Elsewhere, it’s the alt-indie deftness of Phoebe Bridgers, or the soaring, other-worldly tones of FKA Twigs. While on ‘A Brief Inquiry...’ the influence of label-mate No Rome was occasionally more direct (he provided the original beat for eventual single ‘TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME’), here it’s a far more open universe. Sharing the creative stage augments what the band have themselves created, refocusing the direction of travel where needed.

It’s Thunberg’s contribution that sets up the album’s first and most bombastic moment. Even nine months on, the shock waves of ‘People’ still ring loud. It’s a deeply political opening to an album which quickly shifts gear to the more personal. Instrumentals have returned to the fold with a purpose - ‘The End (Music For Cars)’ providing a lush, deliberate orchestral cushion. It’s an early reboot for a record which - from this point on - hits an all together different, more measured stride.

‘Frail State Of Mind’ is the lead on one of two distinct moods which combine throughout ‘Notes...’. Born of the much-heralded ‘nighttime record’ the band promised in the album’s build-up, it’s all UK garage beats and affordable hatchbacks with souped-up sound-systems, gleaming under the glow of ring-road city street-lights. It’s uniquely British, but also fresh and authentic in a way which belies any suggestion of misappropriation. Like The Streets before them, The 1975 have an instinctive feel for what works in a way that never seems anything but effortless. ‘Yeah I Know’ and ‘What Should I Say’ run along similar vibes, while instrumental ‘Having No Head’ and the Cutty Ranks fronted ‘Shiny Collarbone’ contribute with their own stylistic swerve.

It’s the central run of ‘Notes...’ that really shows just how perfectly The 1975 can inhabit this persona, though. From ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’, through ‘Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied’, to ‘Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)’; it’s arguable the band have never sounded better. Overflowing with genuine soul, soft tones and deft touches, it’s an imperial phase delivered in a concentrated three-song burst. Emotional, sincere and scarily good, it’s also without peer.

The other main thread is semantically linked but stylistically removed; an often acoustic, alt-folk-country glow that begins with the winding, stream of consciousness of ‘The Birthday Party’ and grows from there. Both the early-90s harmony of ‘Then Because She Goes’ and the tour-confessional, one-horse town mild yee-haw of ‘Roadkill’ stand strong; the latter no doubt ensuring endless column inches for a throwaway jab at the performative nature of personal politics in the social media age. ‘Me & You Together Song’ remains a genuine point of warmth, while closer ‘Guys’ is pure sentimentality. What could have been mawkish becomes an open-hearted tribute - an end to a chapter, but a promise that the story isn’t over yet.

Of course, one song sits apart from the rest. Though it only first appeared a few short months ago, debuted live at the opening date of the band’s UK tour, ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’ already feels like it could become the defining statement their first decade. Like the moment in the superhero film where the lead finally pulls on the iconic costume, it’s The 1975 proving that they still know how to be the band every other wants to replicate. Sax solos wail, the box blasts bright - ‘Too Shy’ is the beacon burning proud; The 1975 triumphant.

The shiniest jewel in the crown, it’s also proof that ‘Notes’ isn’t simply an album thrown together from best endeavours and reactionary thought. At 22 tracks in length, very little feels like fat to be trimmed. Indeed - there’s probably two distinct, standout, career-defining albums for any other act here, if cut in the right places. Each track offers something to the mix. Pieced together across eighteen months of endless touring, a constantly shifting world and - by the close - a global shutdown, if instinct has played a part it only goes to show just how strong those reflex actions are.

For a while, it appeared like ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ might be the end of The 1975. The close of a decade; the perfect last line in a story. While it’s clear that’s no longer the case, the page remains blank for reinvention once more. What ‘Music For Cars’ has taught us is that, no matter which way they turn next - be it the detuned rock aggression of previous incarnation Drive Like I Do, or ambitious new horizons previously untested - limitless potential isn’t something to be scared of. Let’s just not put any public timelines on it this time, yeah? Stephen Ackroyd

Track x Track

‘The 1975’
The first music heard from ‘Notes’ - it would be easy for the appearance of climate activist Greta Thunberg to feel forced or gimmicky. It doesn’t. A strong, forthright message placed front and centre, and backed up by action to match, that call to rebel is the starting gun on the explosion that follows. SA

Nine months on and ‘People’ still feels like a brick through the window of the expected. Crunching guitars, snarling vocals and the demand for a chance, the lead single for ‘Notes’ takes all the aspirational hope and polished belief of ‘A Brief Inquiry’ and turns it into a clenched fist. Nine Inch Nails meets System of a Down, The 1975 are pulling away from the end of the world with visceral fury. The world needs change, and The 1975 are the first ones in line. At the end of their tether, what other choice did they have? AS

‘The End (Music For Cars)’
Playing up to the self-started rumours that ‘Notes’ would be the last album from The 1975, the instrumental ‘The End (Music For Cars)’ starts quietly before bursting into bloom and wrestling with the occasional flurry of ominous dread. From here on out, the track swells with a majestic, renewed sense of purpose as it chases the light. Achingly beautiful but never completely free of fear, The 1975 find new beginnings from potential conclusion. A jarring follow-on from the chaos that comes before it but a vital bridge to what comes next, ‘The End’ is the first truly shocking moment of ‘Notes’. AS

‘Frail State Of Mind’
The first sign of The 1975’s much-promised ‘nighttime record’, there’s something gloriously British about ‘Frail State Of Mind’. It’s repeating piano roll flickers like reflective lights of the city against the shining exterior of some hotboxed Nissan Micra, vocal line both urgent and utterly at ease in the same moment. Proof The 1975 can magpie from any corner of their musical influence, it’s still uniquely them. SA

The second proper, full instrumental moment of ‘Notes’, ‘Streaming’ is delicate, thoughtful and - in its own way - transformative. Like the sun rising over the hills beyond, it’s as much an introduction for ‘The Birthday Party’ that follows as it is a track in its own right. Glimmering like light through tree branches, once fully taken in, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. SA

‘The Birthday Party’
At first listen, ‘The Birthday Party’ felt a step apart from what we’d already heard from ‘Notes’. Relaxed, delivered like a stream of near consciousness - it never exactly lacked direction, but following big statements like ‘People’ or the direct, affirmative action of ‘Me & You Together Song’, it certainly seemed less urgent. In the context of the record, it’s something altogether different. A genuine, sincere moment, it’s just one of many songs that give ‘Notes’ a warm, beating heart. SA

‘Yeah I Know’
Glitching, minimalist and toying with vocal effects, ‘Yeah I Know’ is the morning after ‘The Birthday Party”s lush adventure. Spinning head, wandering thoughts and unable to focus, the anxiety bop isn’t sure which way is up. “Time feels like it’s changed, I don’t feel the same anymore,” it sings, a moment of clarity amidst the many chirping voices. ‘Yeah I Know’ captures the chaos and spiralling uncertainty that ‘Notes’ finds itself in the centre of. AS

‘Then Because She Goes’
Another left turn here as ‘Then Because She Goes’ explodes in warm light. At just over two minutes, it’s one of ‘Notes’ more succinct moments, but in that time, The 1975 dance with heart-tugging romance and absolute adoration. There’s the ever-present threat of loss lurking in the shadows as the track focuses on everyday drama. “We’re supposed to leave by half past 8, will you stay or wait?” it asks, a small skirmish in an ongoing battle of the heart while the line “You fracture light again” will be captioning cutesy Instagram pictures for the rest of the year. AS

‘Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America’
The most collaborative The 1975 have ever been is also the most vulnerable, as they team up with the living legend that is Phoebe Bridgers for this emo heart-tugger. A simple turn of folksy storytelling becomes so much more as the pair tackle guilt, shame and feeling isolated from the world at large. A song made for bedroom listening, it promises that just because you feel alone, you never really are. It might be dreamy and atmospheric, but ‘Jesus Christ’ wields power in its beauty. AS

And from universal teenage issues to The Matty Show with ‘Roadkill’. A self-deprecating takedown of his ego, the track captures the weird (“I pissed myself on a Texan intersection”) and the not-so-wonderful (“took shit for being quiet during the election, maybe that’s fair but I’m a busy guy”) as Matty bounces between the roar of the stage and the quiet of the hotel room afterwards. It’s all fun, games and tucked up erections until the ending which reminds you that he actually carries a backpack of medical ‘stuff’ in case he gets shot. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for you,” comes the Cheshire Cat grin. AS

‘Me & You Together Song’
An anthem for everyday action and a sugary burst of nostalgia, this is The 1975 at their soppy best. With misty eyes and memories to last a lifetime, it’s a song about unrequited love, not-so-bold declarations and dreams of normality. If you like someone, tell ‘em! It also sounds a lot like early-noughties Busted, but we’ll take it as The 1975 take the mundane and make it sparkle. “We went to Winter Wonderland, and it was shit.” Yeah, we’ve all been there. AS

‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’
Part of a run of songs which, quite probably, provide ‘Notes’' high watermark - ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’ flicks the dial back to the pirate radio of ‘Frail State Of Mind’ and ‘Yeah I Know’. Capturing a moment of self-doubt - feeling there’s something wrong in a relationship but struggling to vocalise it at a point where it might help - the lyric “Feeling like someone, like ‘Somebody Else’” feels like a pertinent echo from a band who have developed so far but never quite lost track of what they are. SA

‘Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied’
‘Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied’ sees The 1975 embrace excess as the track sways between piano-led serenity and fractured breakdowns. “Life feels like a lie, is there anybody out there?” it asks before retracting statements (“I never fucked in a car, I was lying”) and biting at paid meet and greets (“you don’t fuck with your poor fans, you meet the rich ones to expand your floor plans”). It’s a new take on a classic The 1975 flavour, but it shows there’s plenty left to explore. AS

‘Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)’
A song mired in the self-accepted guilt of falling out of love, it’s impossible to not hear the fraught regret that runs through ‘Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)’. Full of warmth but with a sorrowful edge, it’s the close of an emotional story - from the young love of ‘Me & You Together Song’, through the internal doubts to the final, heartbreaking moment when it all falls apart. Once that clicks, you’ll be wanting the hankies. SA

‘Shiny Collarbone’
After that emotional bombshell, it’s no wonder ‘Notes’ feels the need to mix things up a bit. Utilising the vocals of Jamaican dancehall icon Cutty Ranks, ‘Shiny Collarbone’ is more than just a buffer - it’s a refocus to something new. The end of one chapter, the start of another. SA

‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’
There’s every chance that - with proper distance applied - ‘Too Shy’ could be accepted as the ultimate expression of The 1975’s trademark sound. At the very least, it’s the moment of ‘Notes’ destined to join those iconic bangers in the ‘end of set’ hall of fame. Yes, it may be fundamentally a song about getting your kit off on a web-cam, but it’s delivered with such bright, neon brilliance that it feels like a unifying statement all the same. While ‘People’ may be ‘Notes’’ blunt instrument, ‘Too Shy’ is the surgical knife. Pop perfection. SA

‘Playing On My Mind’
Acoustic, and backed vocally for the final time on the record by Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Playing On My Mind’ is a late night internal monologue, full of reflection. Delicate, sometimes dark, but delivered with feeling - it’s an honest representation of the prevailing mood that underlines so much of ‘Notes’. SA

‘Having No Head’
Six minutes in length, ‘Having No Head’ is an instrumental of two parts. Initially sparse - growing piano stabs breaking through the mist - it eventually sparks into life; its second half all beats, synths and glow-sticks. Very much a track to capture a certain mood; once it hits, it’s positively euphoric. A George Daniel masterclass. SA

‘What Should I Say’
Perhaps ‘Notes’ hidden gem, ‘What Should I Say’ feels like a track that grows in influence over time. Largely repeating a slightly shifting refrain, It’s every bit the metropolitan banger. Effortlessly cool but with depth below the surface too, it’s yet another sign that ‘Music For Cars’ has seen The 1975 evolve in ways previously beyond expectation. SA

‘Bagsy Not In Net’
What a title. The rest of the track is pretty great as well, as The 1975 lean into their electronic influences for this open-air club banger. The open flourishes are typical ‘75 before the pulsating beat takes over and drives the track somewhere new. Emo dance “I’m dealing in death and being lonely”, the track is another that stands on the edge of a break, unsure about continuing alone. AS

‘Don’t Worry’
Written by Matty’s dad Tim, but repurposed by The 1975, the penultimate track on ‘Notes’ is a soaring ode to family and fanbase. While ‘A Brief Inquiry’’s ‘I Couldn’t Be More In Love’ was a reassuring nod that The 1975 weren’t going anywhere, ‘Don’t Worry’ is a promise that just cos they’re taking a break, their music will always provide comfort. Feeling like a new dawn after the chaos of ‘Notes’, the sunny side spirit of ‘Don’t Worry’ is a reminder that The 1975 is bigger than the guys onstage. AS

The curtain call of the Music For Cars era is a moment of joyful reflection on the insane journey The 1975 have been on. For an outsider, it’s a sickly sweet burst of twee bro-love, but for those who remember when The 1975 weren’t the biggest band around, it’s an ode to persistence and the strength of their belief in one another. With no ego or grand statement, it’s an unexpected choice to close the most extreme The 1975 album to date, but full of heart and with nothing to hide. It couldn’t be more perfect. AS

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