Album Review: The 1975 - 'Notes on A Conditional Form'
In the run-up to The 1975's release of their fourth album, Notes On A Conditional Form, the hype reached a fever pitch. Here, The Mic explores whether it was worth it.
The 1975 are a band excruciatingly aware of their own mythology. In the run-up to the release of their fourth album, Notes On A Conditional Form, the hype reached a fever pitch. A combination of incessant self-promotion, incredibly considered branding, and the drip-feeding of a grand total of 8 singles before the album’s release meant that the conversation around Notes had been essentially impossible to avoid. Each headline seemed more hyperbolic than the last; the release date was pushed back again and again; it was announced that the album would have 22 tracks, and that it would allegedly be their last before a hiatus. So, now that Notes has actually arrived, it seems bitterly disappointing that the album is merely passable at best.
Making a success of 22 tracks is a challenge for even the least indulgent band, but The 1975 are most certainly not the least indulgent band. Notes is bloated -it feels like the band committed to this number of tracks before actually making enough. Some of their best songs are here; it’s just a shame that they’re muddied by some of their worst. Holding a listener’s attention for 1 hour and 20 minutes is hard enough, without 6 different instrumental tracks. The worst thing is, some of these tracks might have had an impact if deployed properly. Instead, they’re scattered through the tracklist incongruously, just filling space.
Indeed, one of the instrumental interludes, The End (Music For Cars), is guilty of another fault this album suffers from: delusions of grandeur. It’s all well and good naming a track The End, especially when Notes has been labelled the 'end of an era' for the band. But it loses any sentimentality it might have had when it’s situated between People, the band’s take on thrash-rock, and Frail State Of Mind, their best attempt at a Drake beat.
'So, now that Notes has actually arrived, it seems bitterly disappointing that the album is merely passable at best'.
So, to the tracklist itself. Each The 1975 album opens with a self-titled track, and Notes is no different. But this time, instead of a rework of the same basic idea, as it usually is on other albums, The 1975 is a Greta Thunberg speech set to a mix of modular synthesizers and orchestral cues. Usually these title tracks give you an idea of what the album might sound like; in this case, an incredibly maximalist, kitchen-sink-and-then-some album. The transition into second track People is the first left-turn on the album. As an initial statement, it’s pitch-perfect - the band are ripping up the rulebook, and it’s thrilling. The track may not be quite to the standards of an actual hardcore band, but nonetheless it’s a game attempt at experimentation. This is actually a recurring feature; no matter what genre they turn their hand to, these tracks sound exactly as they should - something which is down to producer and drummer George Daniel, who is, in my opinion, the band’s ace in the hole. He is exceptionally good at making a track sound fully realised, no matter the sound.
However, beyond this point, very few of the tracklisting choices make any sense to me. Why banjo back and forth between genres so aggressively? Ironically, one of the worst whiplashes I had on the album occurred between Roadkill and Me And You Together Song - two tracks that aren’t worlds apart, sonically. Roadkill is their take on country, and features some of the worst Matty Healy-isms on the album: “I took shit for being quiet during the election, and maybe that’s fair, but I’m a busy guy”. Yet somehow, the transition from this to the game Britpop of Me And You Together Song felt so wrong. It really feels as if very little attention has been paid to this album as anything more than just a collection of tracks. The band’s previous album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships was hailed as their OK Computer; if that’s the case, then instead of making Kid A, The 1975 have just re-released OK Computer as an overwrought mess.
'The transition into second track People is the first left-turn on the album. As an initial statement, it’s pitch-perfect - the band are ripping up the rulebook, and it’s thrilling'.
But, I don’t want to just criticise the album: there are moments of sheer brilliance here. Nearly every single they released has been right up there with some of their best tracks. Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America, an aching acoustic duet with Phoebe Bridgers, is some of their most delicate material they’ve put out. I connect most with The 1975 when the artifice is stripped away and they make songs that just convey emotion really well, such as The Birthday Party, the sixth track on the album. A lot of this album could be read in the genre of 'rockstar complains about fame', so it’s a credit that they manage to pull the cliché off here. “We’re a scene, whatever that means / I depend on my friends to stay clean, as sad as it seems” is a lyric that really stuck with me.
They also fill out the obligatory sparkly 80s-pop spot that they include on every album with the superb If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know), which follows in the lineage of songs like She’s American and It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You), but perfects the formula. These pop tracks convey messaging better than other 1975 songs, through the sheer undeniability of their melodies.
In terms of material that we hadn’t seen before on the album, the only track that really stuck with me was Yeah I Know, which felt like a really interesting blend of Burial and Thom Yorke’s most recent solo album, ANIMA. It manages to experiment without coming off as pastiche, which sadly is not the case for much of the album. On a shorter, more condensed record they might have pulled them off, but in between so much filler, most are bridges too far. Elsewhere, Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied is an interesting self-dissection, but doesn’t really deal with any of the issues surrounding fame that it brings to the fore. Then there’s the absolutely bonkers Shiny Collarbone, which appears to be an actual dance track, fronted by Cutty Ranks. I still haven’t been able to decide if it's a genius move, or a contrived one.
'The band’s previous album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships was hailed as their OK Computer; if that’s the case, then instead of making Kid A, The 1975 have just re-released OK Computer as an overwrought mess'.
My problem with Notes is this: it had the potential to be fantastic. Trim the fat, halve the tracklist and stop remaking the same faux-electro 5 times, and it might’ve been the best The 1975 record. Instead, what we’ve got is a bloated mess. The dedicated fans might sift through and find things of note, but to anyone else it’s an unjustifiable slog. Final track Guys is one of those moments of pure emotion that the band do best – saccharine, sure, but at least it’s from the heart. Matty Healy sings that this band are “the best thing that ever happened”, and for a second you believe him. Then you remember the rest of the album, and any charm evaporates.