Whenever one talks about The 1975, it comes with a slight turn of the head and a sharp side-eye. As they wisely pointed out in the video for “The Sound,” people have a hard time determining whether or not to take the British band seriously. They look like supermodels more obsessed with their looks than their artistry, their music is sugary guitar pop washed out with synthesizers and their lyrics flaunt unearned pretentiousness and ego. It certainly doesn’t help that frontman Matthew Healy looks like the puckering sad boy Tumblr pages salivate over and flaunts his English accent on record like its an accessory. So if you’re looking for groundbreaking music or lyrics of deep societal critique, The 1975 will only get you a scoff and an eye roll.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the point that The 1975 may be the only great pop band in the world today. They’re never going to win a Pulitzer or have one of their songs be a rally cry for revolution, but no one makes pop music as sweet and anthemic and amazingly not annoying as The 1975. The pop charts have been getting blander by the year so it’s a wonder why the radio hasn’t embraced Healy and company with open arms. It’s certainly not a case of class considering the push Post Malone had this year, nor is it one of frowning on dance music since we have another Daft Punk clone climbing the charts. So what else can the band do to get the world’s attention after brightening their sound to neon pink and naming their record after the kink that turned women on in 2008? Write about kinks that turn women on in 2018.
If The 1975 have always seemed like an 80s synth pop band inexplicably plopped into the 21st century, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships would be the album that firmly puts them in the modern age. It also shows some restraint on the band’s part: it’s much tighter, shorter and doesn’t indulge in many atmospheric instrumentals as 2016’s I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. Despite The 1975 proving themselves capable of making stadium anthems, A Brief Inquiry has more focus on soft ballads and quiet electropop. And even when they do go big, they do it in their own way. Lead single “Give Yourself a Try” is propelled by a guitar riff that sounds more like a dentist drill than a hook and one of Healy’s weirdest vocal deliveries. “Love It If We Made It,” the album’s peak, has a better build-up with George Daniel’s echoing bass drums and the glittering synth effects that climax with Adam Hann’s guitar and Healy’s hollering vocals. Even when they do conventional stadium anthems, The 1975 remain endearing in their commitment to sappy love songs like “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” and “I Couldn’t Be More in Love.” And it’s amazing how they can evoke the wistful mood of Coldplay playing at end of a teen rom com with a song called “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes).”
The main theme of A Brief Inquiry seems to be the intimacy versus isolation of modern love, hence the emphasis on softer music. Healy lays on the Auto-Tune thick throughout the album but less as a cover for bad singing and more to add to the lush electronic mood of the record like Travis Scott or even Kanye West on 808s & Heartbreak. Healy’s voice gets more robotic as the album goes along, starting with light touches on “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” and becoming fully synthetic on “I Like America & America Likes Me.” It’s actually better when Healy is fully robotic and layering multiple backing tracks to his vocals, filling in the sparse backgrounds of “How To Draw/Petrichor” and “I Couldn’t Be More in Love.” Healy’s voice is usually yelpy and whiny on its own, but the way he and the band craft it into another instrument make it one of the album’s best features. As much as The 1975 try to establish themselves, A Brief Inquiry highlights their influences too frequently. “How To Draw/Petrichor” sounds like if Thom Yorke joined Electric Light Orchestra with its spacey first half and skittering percussion too similar to “Idioteque.” Even “The Man Who Married a Robot/Love Theme” sounds like if “Fitter Happier” was narrating the plot of Her. “Inside Your Mind” and album closer “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” have the romanticism and atmospheric guitar rock of Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism, while the lounge room jazz of “Mine” evokes George Michael’s “Kissing a Fool.” For as obvious as their influences are, The 1975 use them more as a stepping stool and not make annoying ripoffs.
The overall mood and theme of the album is intimacy, personal and romantic. Healy seems to be a very lonely man confused and depressed by modern standards of intimacy. The mission statement of A Brief Inquiry is in “Sincerity Is Scary,” a low-fi jazzy ballad about Healy trying to convince his partner to stop looking at everything with condescension and be heartfelt. There’s still that air of pretentiousness in Healy’s lyrics but his detail redeems the song (“You lack substance when you say/Something like, ‘Oh, what a shame’/It’s just a self-referential way that stops you having to be human”). Healy isn’t incapable of being direct and when he is, you actually hear true emotion in his voice (“Why can’t we be friends, when we are lovers?/’Cause it always ends with us hating each other”). “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” is a short but funny bit for its grilling of online dating and how both parties could end up abusing the power of dating apps (“I only called her one time/Maybe it was two times…You text that boy sometimes/Must be more than three times/I didn’t mean to two-time you”) while “Be My Mistake” is a more somber, shameful tale of intimacy behind closed doors (“And don’t wait outside my hotel room/Just wait till I give you a sign/’Cause I get lonesome sometimes”).
Despite the title, there doesn’t seem to be much else in the lyrics about online relationships. That’s not to say the album loses its theme of personal and romantic intimacy. “Give Yourself a Try” is Healy looking back on his younger years and finding age something to shrug off (“I found a grey hair in one of my zoots/Like context in a modern debate, I just took it out/The only apparatus required for happiness is your pain and f**king going outside”). Healy tells a darker version of that message on “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” that starts with the horrors of mundanity (“I bet you thought your life would change/But you’re sat on a train again/Your memories are sceneries for things you said/But never really meant”) but coming back around (“You win, you lose, you sing the blues/There’s no point in buying concrete shoes”). The 1975 do try to make commentary on the modern world here but it’s hit and miss. It hits with the build-up of “Love It If We Made It” both in the music and the way Healy piles on the struggles of 2018 (“Consultation/Degradation/Fossil fueling/Masturbation”) leading to the mantra of “Modernity has failed us.” There is the big miss though, as when The 1975 try to mix the beats of SoundCloud rap with an anti-gun message on “I Like America & America Likes Me.” The trap drums and Healy’s Auto-Tune only make the jumbled lyrics more awkward (“Kids don’t want rifles, they want Supreme/No gun required!/Oh, will this help me lay down?/We’re scared of dying, it’s fine/What’s a fiver?”)
The 1975 certainly have admirable ambitions for a pop band and it’s nice to know that they’re starting to reign themselves in. A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is both as airy and messy as its album cover with blips of bright ideas scattered throughout the 15 tracks with little connection. That said, The 1975 still shows they’re more than able to make great pop music in big and small ways. While they don’t exactly stick to the promise of the album title, the band has some enjoyable lyrics of modern love and living that don’t pander. Now comes the question of where else The 1975 can go: a whole album of stadium anthems? A more stripped-down collection? Something more experimental? Something that’ll actually get them on pop radio? Lord knows, but at least it’s a relief to know that they’re not a fluke.