In the music video for “Girls”, one of the most praised tracks on the 1975’s eponymous debut, frontman Matty Healy proclaims that his band isn’t pop. This statement, as potentially self-aggrandizing as it may seem, does raise up some interesting questions. How can pop music evolve? Is pop music in need of change? This also brought forth some queries about the band itself: Is Matty Healy self-aware or narcissistic? Are their lyrics profound or superficial? If the debut album raised this many questions, the band’s later material would have more to dissect.
Their follow-up, 2016’s I like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, dealt with those exact themes. Healy tackled his own ego, fear, and the way that people perceived the group as a whole. The funky, 80’s instrumentation helped to conjure up a more euphoric experience. “Love Me”, for instance, is a commentary on fame and the relationship between artist and musician. Is it a tad egocentric? Perhaps, but Healy expects his fans to be self-aware enough to see the humor within the shining exterior of the song itself.
As the 1975 grew, so did their vision for soundtracking the millennial condition and all of the intricacies that come with it. More than a few reviewers compared 2018’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships to OK Computer. It’s been a journey for the 1975 and now, all points converge here.
After a series of delays and pushbacks, the band’s fourth album, Notes on a Conditional Form, is finally here. Notes is an all-encompassing, chaotic experiment that sees the 1975 attempting to explore the DNA of the band itself. It is an extensive 22-track genre-salad that jumps from moments of incendiary punk to reflective musings on friendships. The album has so many detours that it will leave you feeling lost some of the time.
To old and new fans alike, there are not many “typical” 1975 songs on this record. Much like the band itself, Notes doesn’t fit into one respective category, but rather it defies convention and aims to prove that the 1975 is a band without limits. The album doesn’t work all of the time, but when it does, the record is masterful.
Notes also serves as the conclusion to the two-album Music for Cars era which also included 2018’s A Brief Inquiry. The record is saturated with moments that may seem foreign to some, but are integral to the makeup of the band itself. In interviews, Healy has described the album as a deconstruction of the myth of him, his band, and the culture they inhabit. Traces of sounds and motifs from early 1975 material can be seen if you listen closely. He even contradicts some lyrics on his earlier work, namely “Robbers” and “Love It If We Made It.”
Lyrically, a majority of the self-referential comments that he makes are presented in a negative or unflattering light. The rock-star facade that Healy presented on earlier albums is pretty much shattered here. He’s never been afraid to be personal, but here, it is shockingly detailed.
The divisiveness of Notes largely stems from the nature of its sequencing and how the band genre-hops from song-to-song. The opening track, The 1975, features none-other than climate change activist Greta Thunberg who pens a heartfelt message about the importance of working on our environment. Thunberg is backed by Brian Eno-esque ambient instrumentation that sounds reminiscent of something off of Thursday Afternoon.
More ambient passages, most notably “The End (Music for Cars)” and “Streaming”, inexplicably show up early on Notes. These are tender and meditative moments that are reminiscent of the quartet’s early EP’s. As important as ambient music seems to be to the band, it is disappointing that there aren’t more of them throughout the record.
This opening track leads right into “People”, a soaring, riotous punk anthem that sees Healy’s voice on the brink of shattering. This track, thematically, can be seen as a follow-up to “Give Yourself a Try” with references to social interaction and self-preservation.
Sequentially, the following two songs, the aforementioned “The End (Music for Cars”) and single “Frail State of Mind”, directly contrast the combustive delivery of People. All of the pent-up energy is just let out without any further exploration. Worse yet, no other moment on Notes matches Healy’s level of aggression. This is just one of many oddball decisions on the record.
“Frail State of Mind” is one of several moments where Healy and co. decide to explore the world of electronic music. Healy’s gentle vocal delivery is perfect as it matches the driving, pulsating drums. It feels like a blanket being wrapped around you and being told that everything is fine. As if Notes couldn’t throw any more curveballs, “Shiny Collarbone” comes into the picture. Healy is nowhere to be found, and instead, we are left with a dancehall hit that features Cutty Ranks.
As one would expect with an album full of experiments, many of the attempts at genre-exploration fall short of what the band is capable of. In some cases, the band sounds just awkward or completely inept trying out these new sounds. Most of the time, these sounds have been done better by other musicians.
“Having No Head” sounds too similar to a composition that Jon Hopkins would have created. “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America”, despite featuring a beautiful contribution from Phoebe Bridgers, just sounds like an acoustic ballad that would be on a dime-a-dozen indie-folk record.
The album concludes with a song that is ostensibly meant for just Healy and his bandmates. “Guys” marks the end of an era for the band, as nostalgia runs through every fiber of the track itself. It’s a touching ode to friendship and how it’s okay to be sentimental around them, even at the expense of looking silly. Other highpoints on Notes can be found on “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”, “Me and You Together Song”, and “Tonight (I Wish I was Your Boy).”
Notes on a Conditional Form is a strange album that will be undoubtedly be alienating to some. However, for a band of this size to end their run with something this ambitious is worth at least some praise. Whether you like it or not, there will undoubtedly be a song or two that will stick with you.