I first came across The 1975 at the South By Southwest festival in March 2013. Their debut album was still six months away, but a friend from Warner Music’s LA office had them down as the must-see act of the week.
I have to admit I was somewhat underwhelmed by the band’s mid-afternoon set on the rooftop of Maggie Mae’s. They looked and moved like an indie punk band, but played shiny, clean guitar pop that had as much in common with the Thompson Twins as The Kooks.
My reservations put me in the minority, however, and I couldn’t deny frontperson Matthew Healy possessed a kind of androgynous je ne sais quoi. The band’s self-titled debut LP landed in September of that year and went straight to the top of the UK charts.
Seven years later, The 1975’s stylistic partiality has seen them climb to the upper rung of the contemporary pop sphere. But their songwriting has also grown more deviant with each release. They’re now sitting on album number four, Notes On A Conditional Form, which plays out like a sprawling exercise in identity gymnastics.
The record’s 22-song, 80-minute runtime is especially luxuriant given it arrives just 18 months after A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships; their boldest and most purposive record to date.
“After A Brief Inquiry, a lot of shit was going on and people were talking a lot about it, we were getting a lot of awards,” says Healy, who’s spending coronavirus lockdown in a residential recording studio just outside of Northampton.
“In that position when you’re a band, you’re like ‘Ok we’re a big band now.’ You can look back at that shit and act accordingly and make the record that a band would make who’s going to headline festivals.” But that’s not the route The 1975 wanted to take.
Although they’ve headlined their fair share of major festivals—including 2019’s Reading and Leeds; a massive moment for a bunch of erstwhile emo kids—and made a conscious effort to engage with the pop mainstream, they’ve also been careful to not strangle their self-awareness.
It helps that Healy and his bandmates—drummer and producer George Daniel, guitarist Adam Hann and bass player Ross MacDonald—have known each other since their early teens. They grew up in an affluent town just south of Manchester and started making music together more than half a lifetime ago.
“We started our band at 13 and it’s the same lineup,” says Healy, who’s now 31. “We didn’t start it at 17 when we had a leather jacket and we had a girl that we fancied and we all had our own favourite bands and we all had our own egos. We were in Spiderman T-shirts being like, ‘you do the plinky-plonky noise and I’ll do the boom-boom-boom noise.’ There was a real organic purity to our expression.”
The members’ shared history is one of The 1975’s foremost advantages. And so following the permeating success of A Brief Inquiry—which NME labelled the “millennial answer to OK Computer”—their impulse was to retreat.
“Let’s just fucking go home; that’s what we felt like,” says Healy. “Let’s just go home, back to the bedroom, and keep making fucking trippy weird music that we like listening to.”
If The 1975’s music is trippy and weird that’s because our contemporary reality is fucking weird. The title A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships was a primer for the record’s dominant themes. Along with virtual love affairs and Twitter bust-ups, Healy’s lyrics examine how our relationships to the world—in a social, professional, spiritual and intellectual sense—are channelled through and often dependent on the internet.
The standout track, “Love It If We Made It”, provides an inventory of life in the ultra-surreal late-2010s. From racial disparity in prisons to fake news, the Syrian refugee crisis and the death of Lil Peep, Healy’s lyrics cover it all. Meanwhile, the song’s most gruesome lines are direct quotes from the 45th President of the USA.
In a glowing review, Pitchfork described “Love It If We Made It” as the “rare Anthem for Our Time that actually gets the job done.” And while Healy prefers to let listeners join the dots, the song’s medley of images was tied together by the summation that “modernity has failed us.”
“My rules for a protest song are, if it’s going to be hectoring or if it’s going to be naïve or ridiculously idealistic, just don’t do it,” Healy says. “So I can’t really be criticised because I don’t provide any opinion. I basically put up footage of stuff that is not OK on a screen and say, ‘Is this OK?’”
Notes’ eponymous opening track is a case in point. It features climate activist Greta Thunberg calling for immediate action. In a typically eloquent address, Thunberg drives home the fact that “there are no grey areas when it comes to survival.” Healy calls Greta one of the most authentic people he’s met, and her inclusion on Notes augments his bid to hold a mirror up to the current moment.
“I want to make a record that’s a record of what’s going; a record of a coherent perspective from this time,” Healy says. “There’s loads of tweets and endorsements and thumbs up about Greta, but I wanted Greta on a record so in a thousand years in the rubble, someone can find that, listen to it and understand that some of us were trying. ‘Cos you’re not going to find all that other shit.”
Greta’s call for rebellion sets the stage for the record’s first track proper, “People”. Rarely have The 1975 channelled such visceral anger as they do on “People”. To hell with niceties and impotent footnotes, signals Healy, as he repeatedly screams “ Stop fucking with the kids.”
But the song’s blazing angst is only representative of what’s to come insofar as it announces The 1975 won’t be complying with your abstract ideas about their stylistic identity. Notes’ second single, “Frail State of Mind”, is one of many electronic pop songs on the album, nodding towards UK garage and producers like Burial.
From here the deviations are essentially non-stop, taking in country pop (“The Birthday Party”), Prince-lite neo soul (“Nothing Revealed / Nothing Denied”) dancehall (the Cutty Ranks-featuring “Shiny Collarbone”) and a number of instrumentals—“The End (Music For Cars)” owes debt to Healy’s hero Brian Eno, while the evolving techno of “Having No Head” is more akin to Jon Hopkins.
So what’s driving all of this modulation? Is it a deliberate quest to be as far-reaching as possible?
“When we make a record, we live together and we wake up every day and we make music,” says Healy. “So if you woke up every day and made the same fucking food or you played the same game, it would be boring. So if we made the same music, it would be boring. So it’s not about striving to be bold. It’s about avoiding being fucking bored.”
But for all of the genre gobbling on Notes, its strongest moments are when the band plays with a relatively straight bat. The likes of “Me & You Together Song”, “Roadkill” and “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” are built around bright and jangly guitar tones, major key vocal melodies and unguarded lyrical honesty.
These are the songs that best embody the sense of “faded splendour” that Healy sees as the primary through-line in The 1975 catalogue. “It’s inherently pretty, but there’s a sadness there, there’s a kind of broken fragility there,” he says. However, he rejects the idea that these songs are truer to the band’s essence.
“This is why people call us magpies. If it’s shiny then the magpie loves it. Beautiful melody, emotive quality is our version of shiny,” he says. “So it can be in the right hand of the coolest minimal piece or it could be from a P!nk song. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s shiny.”
This fondness for all things shiny explains the reservations I felt when I first saw The 1975. They had all the trappings of an indie act, but were perceptibly eyeing off the mainstream. I’d already witnessed this in the likes of Bastille and Mumford & Sons; simulacrums of successful indie crossover acts whose music feels too calculated to be taken seriously.
But since releasing A Brief Inquiry, The 1975’s project has become clearer. Yes, they want to inhabit the pop mainstream, but they want to bring sincerity and complicated truths with them, while also striking up a constructive discourse with their audience. And at every turn, they want to avoid sounding like a throwback.
“I describe my band as a punk band,” says Healy. “We don’t sound like Minor Threat, we don’t sound like Quicksand, and we fucking shouldn’t because that’s not a genuine alternative statement nowadays. If you look back in the past and you go, ‘oh that was cool and people really liked it; let’s dress and sound like that,’ that’s cosplay.”
Notes’ swerving, elaborate journey comes to an end with “Guys”, a love song for mates that’s charged with more than a little nostalgia. “ The moment that we started a band was the best thing that ever happened,” sings Healy, sounding completely unmasked.
The 1975 are in an enviable position. Their fans’ loyalty has hardened at the same time as their sales have increased and their name taken pole position on festival posters. Their indie cred has grown alongside, and they’ve earned stamps of approval from plenty of serious-minded music critics.
But you sense this isn’t really what Healy’s referring to in “Guys”.
“It’s very much been my version of journaling, making these records,” he says. “It’s essential for me now. But the interesting thing is, the shit that you write and think, ‘wow that’s the most impenetrable thing I’ve written, or that is the most specific shit,’ that’s the stuff that people get tattooed, because those are the things that everyone goes through.
“It’s a really strange, amazing thing to have; this document of life.”
The 1975's new album, "Notes on a Conditional Form" is out now via Sony / Dirty Hit. Listen here