Notes on a Conditional Form, released a week ago on Friday, is The 1975’s fourth full studio album. Comprising twenty-two tracks of an eclectic range of styles, “Notes” nevertheless retains that familiar 1975 sound.
On previous albums, the band has been criticised for being overly ambitious, with too many conflicting musical styles, and we will doubtless see that argument made regarding Notes on a Conditional Form. The album is the band’s longest yet, and boasts a smorgasbord of stylistic influences encompassing emo, dubstep, country, folk and classical ― but one gets the sense that the whole project is intended to sit under the umbrella term of “experimental”.
Whilst “experimental” may, to some, seem a by-word for that which satisfies frontman Matty Healy’s obviously mushrooming ego, Notes manages to satirise modern culture with an adroitness lacking in most contemporary pop artists ― who tend rather to pander to it.
After the commercial success of the band’s previous three albums, The 1975 and Healy in particular have really gone for the cultural and stylistic jugular. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Notes’s opening track, “The 1975”. As with the band’s previous album openers, it serves as a stylistic manifesto; a five-minute long spoken-word song featuring Greta Thurnberg urging civil disobedience instantly marks this album as a protest directed both at the youth and for the youth. Where previous albums have included lyrics referencing the band’s “Boomer” fanbase, there is none of that here.
“People”, an aggressive emo-rock diatribe against stay-in-bed keyboard warriors, marks a serious departure from anything seen before from The 1975, and represents a serious risk taken by the band. It does away with crooning vocals and pleasant synths, preferring instead aggressive call-to-arms screams of an entirely different kind to Thurnberg’s considered rhetoric.
The pleasant synths are never far away, however, and the more popular cuts are interspersed with instrumentals which see the band drawing heavily from their self-admitted inspiration Brian Eno. “The End (Music For Cars)”, whose title bluntly suggests that Notes represents the completion of their Music For Cars era, recalls the booming, brassy, bass magnetism of Hans Zimmer’s Blade Runner 2049 score; the six-minute “Having No Head” is a cinematic journey through piano recitals and adolescent club experiences, finally moving into a digital synth beat that fuzzes into nonchalance. These instrumentals are not pretentious: they lace the album’s explicit, decidedly modern narrative of drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll with universal expressions of human innocence and experience.
Modernity and its pitfalls nevertheless occupy centre stage ― with the internet a particular preoccupation. “I think the constant pursuit of happiness teaches us that when you’re not happy, you’re wrong,” Healy says, “and you’re not wrong, you’re just alive.” Songs such as “Frail State of Mind”, and “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” explore the effects and realities of living in the age of the internet (continuing themes from 2018’s An Enquiry Into Online Relationships). Indeed, that “Conditional Form” of the album’s title is the inconsistent, fleeting dopamine rush that the online world can occasionally provide ― musically expressed in a short instrumental track aptly named “Streaming”.
Healy is most adept, however, at penning introspective lyrics that hold a mirror up to the ironies and peculiarities of modern life. Whether the subject be drug use, (“The Birthday Party”), or modern belief systems (“Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America”), there are often little titbits of worldly knowledge embedded in the self-deprecating humour and catchy guitar riffs to be found in most of the tracks on Notes. In a world confused as to where it currently finds itself, Notes abounds in apolitical observations that can inspire both crushing sadness and the odd wily grin.
Healy claims that with tracks like “Me and You Together Song” and “Guys” The 1975 have evolved back into the garage band they once were. This time, it’s a hard sell. Notes is at once arrogant, aesthetic, pretentious, brilliant, muddled, confusing and astute. It defies categorisation. If nothing else, it is a witty poster board for things that aren’t ― but should be ― being said.
For that reason, one gets the sense that, unlike previous attempts, Notes on a Conditional Form is not intended for mainstream success. Despite that, the band were intent on delivering the album amid the hype and attention of the British music festival summer cycle. But, Matty Healy smiles gleefully in one of his many video appearances, perhaps an internet release is far more pertinent to the subject matter than a live tour could ever be.