Reassessment: The 1975’s Notes On A Conditional Form

Glaring errors in music criticism, whether out of ignorance, misunderstanding, rushed deadlines, personal happenings, or whatever else, are at some point in the fields unfortunately commonplace; at some point in the field, you’re bound to make mistakes. When revisiting my past reviews, I balked at my original review of The 1975’s 2020 double LP art pop extravaganza Notes On A Conditional Form. Back then, I called it “frontman Matty Healy’s overblown vanity project [...] a miserably scattered, fake deep musical torture session.” How did that happen? Before dissecting my oversight, however, I’ll provide extended context and a much-needed reassessment.

Formed in 2002 in a small town south of Manchester, The 1975 went through many names and aesthetics before vocalist/guitarist/public figure Matty Healy, drummer/producer/keyboardist George Daniel, guitarist Adam Hann, and bassist Ross MacDonald settled on the guitar-based electropop sound of their early EPs. During this time, “literally every record company in the world passed on them twice,” according to their manager Jamie Oborne. They signed to Oborne’s Dirty Hit, struck a licensing deal with UMG (Polydor manages UK/EU distribution, while Interscope distributes them in the States), and their self-titled 2013 debut became a surprise commercial success. While not stylistically unique, The 1975 provided listeners a taste of Healy’s sharp lyrical skills that balance conversational verses with catchy hooks. Their 2016 follow-up, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, is a technicolor art- pop statement decked out in 80s glamour and Kanye-level grandiosity. Carefully guiding listeners through Matty Healy’s mind and ego, I like it when you sleep’s 74 minutes intelligently details parties, breakups, fame, drug use, and mental disarray over a sonic palette of synthpop, shoegaze, R&B, and dubstep.

Between the I like it when you sleep tour’s conclusion and A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ 2018 release, Matty Healy entered rehab for heroin addiction. The first of the band’s “Music For Cars” pieces, A Brief Inquiry explores social unrest, the internet, and addiction on a global scope, conceptually asking, “Can the center hold?” Healy’s lyrics are at turns wise, pointed, sensitive, and anxious; complimented by his and George Daniel’s detailed production (jumping between post-punk, tropical house, neo-soul, bombastic synth-rock, autotune experiments, and conventional Britpop), A Brief Inquiry firmly established The 1975 as the defining band for millennials and Gen Z’ers watching the world burn through their compulsively-refreshed Twitter feeds.

Depending on who you ask, Healy is either an uncompromising pop star sick of pop stardom, or a pretentious, arrogant hipster (“I know I am pretentious, but I’d be the first person to tell you that”). His public actions are notorious; he’s feuded with contemporaries, referred to himself as a Messiah figure, embarrassed himself, and said things perceived as politically incorrect. Artistically speaking, The 1975’s influences are transparent (“I listen to a song I love and I copy it,” Healy stated in a New York Times interview), and their album rollouts can be seen as either brilliant or annoyingly time-consuming. Healy also controls the group’s image as “the biggest band nobody’s ever heard of,” telling The Guardian in 2016, “I don’t want people saying The 1975 were great at Reading, I want people saying ‘I couldn’t get in to see The 1975 at Reading.’”

As the Brief Inquiry album cycle concluded, The 1975 immediately promoted Notes On A Conditional Form, their “UK nighttime record; in cars smoking weed, Burial and McDonald’s and the M62 and Manchester - just England!” With the title and 22-track length announced long before completion, The 1975 incorporate countless genres on the long-delayed 81-minute second installment of “Music For Cars.” It’s a product of the modern streaming era, where everyday listeners have tastes as eclectic as their favorite artists. In digital context, NOACF’s length can feel overbearing, its sonic diversity sloppy, and its presentation self-indulgent. When deeply analyzed, however, it reveals itself to be The 1975’s most intricate work, a record speaking to our collective modern existence through Matty Healy’s personal songcraft.

Easily the album’s most difficult stretch is its opening few tracks. “The 1975,” the band’s self-titled theme song re-interpreted for each record, is here a (for some listeners, insufferable) 5-minute speech by climate activist Greta Thunberg, backed by ambient soundscapes. “We are now in the beginning of a climate and ecological crisis [...] we are facing a disaster of unspoken sufferings for enormous amounts of people [...] we have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases and either we do that, or we don’t [...] today, we use about 100 million barrels of oil every single day [...] it is now time for civil disobedience, it is time to rebel.” An important message, yes, but quite obnoxious as an album opener (though maybe making climate activism obnoxious is the only way to charge forward). “People,” The 1975’s proper entrance, is a politically-enraged punk song that, while passionate, feels messy. “The End (Music For Cars)” is a pleasant albeit somewhat confusing orchestral interlude segueing into “Frail State Of Mind,” the album’s second single. Anchored by aesthetically murky Burial-esque dubstep production, it’s a dive into Healy’s social anxiety (“Go outside?/Seems unlikely/I’m sorry that I missed your call”) that, of the COVID-19 pandemic, feels oddly prophetic.

As genre-hopping as it is, NOACF’s compositions are easily divided into love songs, the aforementioned Burial knockoffs, social observations, and personal introspections. The former comprises much of NOACF, likely because of Healy’s breakup during the LP’s recording. Shoegaze guitars anchor the beautiful “Then Because She Goes,” “Me & You Together Song” melancholically describes a failed attempt at ideal romanticism, and “Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)” is a longing electro-soul ballad sampling the Temptations and Hiroshi Sato. The album’s highest-charting hit, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know),” is a glossy synthpop cut about a dystopian yet realistic cybersex obsession (“I need to get back/I’ve gotta see the girl on the screen”), with jangly guitars and a saxophone solo cementing its 80s-ness.

The 1975 well-documented their worship of seminal dubstep/UK garage producer Burial on I like it when you sleep’s 6-minute title track and A Brief Inquiry’s “How To Draw/Petrichor,” though NOACF spotlights those emulations/ripoffs. Some of these tracks, such as “Shiny Collarbone” and “Having No Head” (mostly credited to Daniel, the band’s sonic architect), are tasteful garage instrumentals seemingly tailored for the “UK nighttime in cars” setting, while “Yeah I Know” and “Bagsy Not In Net” respectively use the cold soundscapes and bleak vocal manipulations to complement Healy’s environmental worries (“Live on mars/Fuck it up”) and themes of loss (“Leaving you here is the thing that I fear, so I fight it”).

In contrast to the contentious interview quotes, Matty Healy’s songwriting eloquently expresses societal concerns through first person perspectives. “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” a folk ballad with Phoebe Bridgers, comments on religious oppression and (more ambiguously) the prison-industrial complex, whereas “Playing On My Mind” examines Healy’s current stature aside relationships and technological distractions (“Let’s find something to watch and watch our phones for half the time/When we go for food, you have yours and I’ll have mine”). Nothing on NOACF tries to be as profound as A Brief Inquiry, rather it fulfills a different purpose and explores an alternate lyrical style.

“The Birthday Party,” a fictional trip through an uneventful party where Matty Healy abstains from temptations of sex and drugs (“Single and well, I thought that I was stuck in hell/In a boring conversation with a girl called Mel, ‘bout her friend in Cincinnati called Matty as well”), best summarizes the album’s accomplishments. Similar to how the outward-looking anthem “Love It If We Made It” serves as A Brief Inquiry’s ideological centerpiece, “The Birthday Party” is Notes’ thesis, a confessional glimpse into Healy’s life and struggles. Elsewhere, “Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied,” featuring the London Community Gospel Choir, deconstructs fame’s mythologizing and dispels one of his most iconic lyrics (“I never fucked in a car, I was lying” references “Love It If We Made It”’s opening line, “We’re fucking in a car, shooting heroin”). “Roadkill” is the singer’s controversial recollection of touring experiences (the line, “A man in the gift shop called me a f**” lit a Twitter fire; Healy identifies as straight, though said, “You don’t get to take that [gift shop] experience away from me”), while album closer “Guys” is an affectionate ode to his bandmates.

What made me so strongly bash Notes On A Conditional Form in that initial 3/10 review? First, streaming the album start to finish is a burden; it’s manageable as a four-sided double album, but as a continuous digital stream appears to lack a firm identity (Healy claims that that’s the whole point, but it doesn’t bode well for less involved listeners). Despite his best efforts to be progressive, Matty Healy’s status as a wealthy, cisgender, white pop star automatically increases skepticism of his well-intentioned socio-political statements, and that excludes the possible baggage of his ego. Lyrically, he exposes himself so much that it’s either relatable or highly invasive, as if he’s unloading his problems on his fans. Some could fairly argue that he inches too close to the proverbial “fourth wall” between artist and audience, especially since he’s far more transparent than his millennial pop/alternative peers. My original comment on NOACF’s diverse production blatantly ignored George Daniel’s role and completely blamed Healy (an easier target for an angry critic, as the latter fulfills all of their publicity obligations). I still think Notes’ initial stretch hinders the full work’s accessibility, and that a couple of later songs (namely “Playing On My Mind” and “What Should I Say”) are non-essential, though the record’s scope and detail makes up for it. (Side note: The 1975 seem to habitually follow lyrical masterpieces with out-of-place acoustic ballads: I like it when you sleep’s “Nana” feels bizarre following “Paris,” A Brief Inquiry’s “Be My Mistake” significantly bores when placed after “Love It If We Made It,” and “Playing On My Mind” sounds dull succeeding “If You’re Too Shy.”)

Another aspect integral to a review is the album rollout’s full context. Unveiled over nine months, NOACF dropped with rabid hype, fueled by mysterious artworks, music videos (including the surreal 3D-animated “The Birthday Party” video), and the “Mindshower Digital Detox” site containing virtual zines, stems, and design templates. Research for my initial review excluded all of the above as well as the experience-enhancing physical package. For that, I take responsibility and apologize to readers.

The 140g clear vinyl double LP, cut at 24-96 Mastering from Robin Schmidt’s 44.1/24 digital master, isn’t a vast improvement on the digital download. The album was recorded and mixed at 96/32 (as evidenced by the Mindshower mixed stems), and while the recording and mixing are great, the mastering could’ve been a bit more dynamic (but it’s not ear-fatiguing). The clear vinyl, pressed at GZ, is noisy in quieter passages (though settles down with further playback), but pleases overall. The packaging is excellent; sold in a recycled and recyclable outer sleeve, the minimalist gatefold jacket and inner sleeves are printed on Cairn Natural Kraft 100% Recycled Card. The text-based design, featuring only one band photo and no printed lyrics, reinforces the album’s “focus on the music” presentation. As digitally enjoyable as NOACF can be, the double vinyl experience is far more complete. The first side’s runout etching speaks eons to The 1975’s ambitions: “If this is to be read in future - please know that this was us trying.”

(Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor, music lover, and avid record collector. He’s currently planning the site’s multi-part exploration into Yellow Magic Orchestra. Follow Malachi on Twitter: @MalachiLui and Instagram: @malachi__lui)

Anton D's picture

That was great.

Some of my favorite albums are ones that I had to work and process to see how they incorporate into my schema.

Thanks for that fun read.

Duke86fan's picture

not only because it seems like a lot of people on here are not into the more modern indie rock or hip hop discussions. not to say a lot of analog planet viewers only wanna hear someone talk about a new reissue of a Bing Crosby or Prince album, but they're definitely is a vocal minority of people who really don't like the modern music critiques and would find this insufferable.

but then again with the bombast and 80s pop stylings might also be the best way to introduce older audience to a more modern indie pop sound. as matt mentioned on give yourself a try he is "a millennial the baby boomers like", I don't know if this album is the perfect statement for that though compared to "I like it when you sleep" and "a brief inquiry" because there is so much bombast it could exhaust. if I was going to recommend a good intro into the modern pop scene for the analog planet reader I probably would say something like dua lipa's "future nostalgia" or carly rae jepsens "emotion".

Michael Fremer's picture
Whether or not readers like the music is almost beside the point. The writing and the information is incredible. This review was posted with two corrected typos and that's all. It arrived HTML formatted and as far as I"m concerned it's the 15 year old's best-written most informative review. At the very least, I hope readers appreciate it from the perspective alone.
Duke86fan's picture

this was a really really good review from Malachi..and I love seeing more experimental and indie music outside of the standard audiophile darling getting reviewed.

MalachiLui's picture

definitely focusing on reviewing more experimental/artsy stuff as well as more pop records... as well as reviewing older things like new prince reissues lol (but no bing crosby releases...)

Duke86fan's picture

is the comparison of a brief inquiry's “How To Draw/Petrichor” and the title track of "I like with when you sleep" to the artist burial... as a fairly notable electronic music nerd I can tell you that burial has a highly distinct style in not just dubstep but electronic in general. listen to songs like "archangel", "kindred", or "truant" to see what I'm talking about.. frail state of mind I agree does have the similar burial drum patterns that anyone who heard Untrue will notice. But the drum beat on "how to draw" is more comparable to a tech house artist like jon hopkins or even the happy EDM of porter robinson (new album he has is really good btw). and I like it when you sleep definitely has the comparison to an extent but I can also say it sounds a bit like a folktronica song such as the work of the notwist.

MalachiLui's picture

the title track of 'i like it when you sleep' does not sound like burial (sorry i implied that), tho it very much has the vibe of matty and george being like "we wish we could be electronic artists who just have to hide behind a computer all the time." and there are elements of "how to draw/petrichor" in the middle that are burial-esque...

PeterPani's picture

after Malachi put so much effort into this. How, an Analogplanet reader cannot buy this album. I ordered the adequate format for this kind of music:

for € 9 on musiccassette.

Tom L's picture

New clear vinyl copies of this album are currently available on Amazon for $20.99.
Cassettes are a pain.

PeterPani's picture

whether cassettes have to be a pain.
Since The 1975 released their material on musiccassettes, too, I guess, they appreciate it, when listeners buy this format, too.