It sometimes seems like there is little in the world to be properly excited about. Surrounded as we are by bad news about the planet, our lives and ourselves, it’s no wonder people feel jaded; we are, mostly, too tired for hopefulness, too cynical for enthusiasm. Today, however, we are presented with the possibility of something else, as The 1975 release A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships.
The campaign for The 1975’s third album, out now, has spanned five months and as many advance singles. The songs presented to fans so far provided a vague roadmap of the LP’s major themes – modern life, love, addiction. As such, this is a big album in a way that little other mainstream music this year has been: its topics are intense and overarching, its experimentations with genre are extensive and its tracklist long. The album's towering ambition is startling, and through its boundless self-confidence, it offers its listeners something very unusual indeed: something to believe in.
It’s a feat that only the most culturally significant rock bands accomplish, and you'd be foolish at this point to argue that The 1975 are anything else, in the UK at the very least. All it takes is a quick search of the band’s name on social media to get a sense of the round-the-clock fervour that they, and particularly their frontman Matty Healy (a sort of drama queen, millennial Bowie in a puffa jacket) already inspire. In the past, organising thousands of people around a single mood or message in this way has felt angled towards disillusionment (as in the case of Nirvana), or difference (My Chemical Romance), or some other feeling of being generally at odds with the dominant ideology of the times. It makes sense, then, that as a globally famous rock band in 2018, The 1975 would like to present you with optimism.
Because A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is forward looking. It is 15 songs that are about possibilities over conclusions, and as Jazz Monroe writes for the Independent, “Resolutions seldom materialise, because Healy wants something else – [...] to shrink his reality into compact pop songs that pose extravagant questions.” Resolutions, in fact, rarely even matter, because Healy is here to tell you about life, the world as he sees it, and how, above all, hope can change everything before you get to the end.
The album's big ideas about contemporary life hinge on single “Love It If We Made It.” On the song, the verses are a cacophony of nightmarish headlines influenced by our real, shared culture (“A beach of drowning three-year-olds / Rest in peace Lil Peep,” Healy shouts, as though down a megaphone). When the chorus kicks in, however, an immediate lightness comes over the song, as an angular guitar lick and the simple, individual optimism of a lyric like “I’d love it if we made it” elbows the noise out of the way. “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” deals with relationships mediated by social media (“Don’t think it was three times / You text that boy sometimes”), but it’s fun and poppy rather than heavy, and its zeitgeist-y tropical synths are as current as the light casualness with which the internet has allowed us to date, which characterises the lyrics.
Elsewhere, on the subject of the modern world, you find less immediate relief. Instead, the band goes for a kind of detached observation, which doesn't feel as successful (The 1975 are much better hopeful than scathing). On interlude “The Man Who Married a Robot / Love Theme,” for example, Siri does a spoken word monologue about the ills of the internet. This will almost certainly turn some listeners off – it’s more than a bit “what if phones but too much” – though it’s worth noting that for teenage fans, who are, rightfully, the listeners this record keeps most in mind (I’ve written before about how its singles bend to the listening habits of younger people), it’s possible that the track might be offering a point of view previously not considered. Similarly, “Give Yourself a Try,” on which Healy asks “What would you say to your younger self?” before dispensing advice on drinking whiskey and growing a beard, could be seen as a wizened, almost-30-year-old speaking gently to the army of teens who hang on his words.
This said, it’s very possible those words could grate – some critical resistance to the band is rooted in Healy’s lyrical style, which can feel haphazard or contrived. Sometimes it hits beautifully, as on the Song of the Year-level standout “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You),” a love song but about heroin, where a backing vocal (“selling petro-oh-ol”) becomes one of the best moments of the album. But there are other instances, like on “Give Yourself a Try” (“I found a grey hair in one of my zoots”), and “Mine” (“I fight crime online sometimes”), which are less convincing – and yet, nine times out of ten on A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, Healy’s personal bombast, and his confidence in his project, just about carries even the most brow furrowing of lines off.
Because for the most part, the band function almost entirely without self-consciousness (maybe that's why a mostly instrumental track like “How to Draw / Petrichor,” the closest the record comes to posturing, if we're being honest, jars slightly), and this feels like a huge part of their success and allure. Because the fact is that you can rationalise – you can know that the fable about the internet is fake deep; you can think, 'Did he really say that someone’s hair smells like feet?'; you can wring your hands about how much you really fucking hated the last album title – but ultimately it is all pointless, because Healy is so charming and sincere, and the pop tracks on this album are so infectious, that The 1975 have become basically undeniable.
The best case for this comes at the very end of A Brief Inquiry, on three previously unreleased tracks. First, there’s “Mine,” a loungey Cole Porter-ish affair, where the band try to create their own Great American Songbook entry. It’s a ridiculous prospect, but they have often pulled off the unexpected (“Somebody Else,” from their last album, surprised everyone with its electronic pop sensibility). “Mine” is a lovely example of how good they are at it. That’s followed by “I’ve Never Been More In Love,” where the big talking point is the refrain. It doubles as kind of a millennial mission statement, sung from Healy’s very gut: “What about these feelings I’ve got?” he wails, like you alone in your room post-bottle of wine with dinner. Like much of his best lyrical work, this line contains so much possible emotion in very few syllables; the same is true for the hook of the final track “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes),” a string-heavy, stadium rock screamer with a bit of the U2 about it (better than it sounds), which sees the title repeated, and the record’s message of realistic hope underlined with a final flourish.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ final fifth, then, takes The 1975 stratospheric, showing what innovative, accomplished musicians they are at their finest. It’s an apt ending for an album with such huge aims, which, it has to be noted, maybe aren’t entirely met. It’s too long, and our ability to enjoy it as a full body of work has arguably been compromised by the lengthy campaign, whereby too many of the songs came out ahead of time. But even these imperfections position The 1975 as a band for right now – as they adjust themselves towards the listening processes of their fans – and that is what is most significant about the record.
This is an album about life in 2018; it doesn’t deal in timelessness, nor does it want to. Healy is not even necessarily providing profound insights – he's merely saying the things about our collective existence that we already know but have not managed to articulate. He just has a way of expressing himself – a turn of phrase, a sincerity, a real belief that what he is doing is important – that makes you want to listen, and when you do, his gusto feels rare and deeply inspiring. In making A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, he and his band have volunteered themselves as the pop stars of our moment, tackling the big, frightening shit in a daring way that nobody else has or even would. Listening to it – and, crucially, allowing yourself to be carried away on The 1975's cresting wave of looking at life and relishing it – you’ll thank goodness they did.
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