The story of The 1975 is a story of defying expectations. The Wilmslow quartet- consisting of drummer George Daniel, guitarist Adam Hann, bassist Ross MacDonald and frontman Matty Healy- have been a band for 16 years after meeting in high school, and their road to becoming one of the most important acts of this decade has certainly not been an easy one.
Major labels wined and dined them, only to snub them when it came to signing a record deal, and early projects were panned by critics- a fan vote at NME’s 2014 award show even bestowed them with the title of “Worst Band” of that year. Neither were quite enough to halt them, mind, as they formed their own independent label, Dirty Hit, with band manager Jamie Oborne and their sophomore release, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, converted skeptics into believers, as the same critics were swift to champion them as the next big thing. Their latest barrier? Matty Healy’s on-and-off heroin/prescription opiate use had become a serious issue, and as a result, he checked into rehab for 7 weeks at the end of last year.
Before then, Healy declared that The 1975’s third album was to be their last. Where their eponymous debut detailed the marvels and malaise of teenage life, and I like it when you sleep… presented all of the trappings- and pitfalls- of sudden stardom in vivid detail, Music For Cars was intended to be the final chapter in this trilogy. Faithful fans need not despair, however, as during an interview earlier this year, Healy affirmed that The 1975 were here to stay, and went on to reveal that one had become two- Music For Cars was now two records: A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships and Notes On A Conditional Form, the latter being scheduled for release at some point next year. The former arrived last Friday and, to put it succinctly, it’s their best to date.
A Brief Inquiry opens with a familiar jingle: “The 1975” is a track that has appeared on their previous two records, with a few sonic tweaks on each iteration. This version is their most distinct, as distant piano keys are drowned out by a commanding vocal, thanks to the Pryzmizer effect any Bon Iver or Kanye West fan will probably be acquainted with. Lead single “Give Yourself A Try” follows: a frenetic, post-punk flavoured anthem all about self-love in your late 20s. Here, Healy laces his unique witticisms into generous nuggets of wisdom, with lyrical highlights like “Growing a beard’s quite hard; And whiskey never starts to taste nice” and “Getting STD’s at 27 really isn’t the vibe”.
Immediately after the track’s final distorted guitar note, “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” boots up like a 90s PC, and Healy’s sageness is exchanged for frivolity. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this track is nothing more than playful- “I only called her one time; Maybe it was two times?…” Healy recites during the hook- but beyond its silly exterior, “TOOTIME” is perhaps the most pure distillation of the album’s subject matter, suggesting how technology has reduced the mediation of many of our relationships down to something as menial as an Instagram like (“She said that I should have liked it; I told her “I only use it sometimes”). This track also boasts a warm, tropical house instrumental- courtesy of drummer/chief soundsmith George Daniel- and the next song sees Daniel flex his production muscles even more.
Aside from the 5 singles released prior to A Brief Inquiry, “How To Draw / Petrichor” is undoubtedly one of the record’s strongest tracks- the first half appeared initially as a bonus track on I like it when you sleep…, but has been spruced up with a twinkly toy piano and a liberal serving of autotune. However, this song truly comes into it’s stride during the latter half- it’s a glitchy, garage bonanza that any Aphex Twin or Burial fans could certainly get on board with.
“Love It If We Made It” soon steals the limelight, as its lyrics read off like a morning scroll through Twitter on the day of the apocalypse. During the verses, Healy unrelentingly barks through topical subject matters, from the death of Lil Peep to Donald Trump’s confessions of sexual harassment. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as tension is instantly relieved in the chorus with a feverish groove- a beacon of hope in a time rife with collective anxiety. “I Like America & America Likes Me” reaches another emotional crest, as Healy yelps the oblique, yet undeniably desperate lyrics “I’m scared of dying” and “Would you please listen!” over a beautifully layered trap instrumental.
Comparisons between this album and Radiohead’s OK Computer have already been made, and if there’s any song on A Brief Inquiry that one could attribute this to, it’s “The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme”- something of an homage to OK Computer’s “Fitter Happier”. Where “Fitter Happier” recruited a primitive, haunting text-to-speech program to detail the criteria for living a better life, “The Man Who Married A Robot” features a much more familiar, yet perhaps equally haunting voice: Apple’s very own artificial assistant, Siri. Whilst Siri’s tale of a lonely man, going by the name of @snowflakesmasher86, who befriends the internet is deliberately absurd (“They would play with each other every day, watching videos of humans doing all sorts of things: Having sex with each other; Informing people on what was wrong with them and their life”), it outlines an epidemic that many suffer from: an unwavering dependence on the World Wide Web.
“Inside Your Mind” is unlike anything The 1975 have ever done before: it’s a sprawling, post-rock ballad with a macabre streak- the narrator’s obsession with finding out what’s going on in his partner’s head has driven him to the point of yearning to “Crack it open just to see what’s inside”. This contrasts heavily with the succeeding song, “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” was described by Matty Healy as “The 1975iest The 1975 song since The 1975’s first album The 1975”, and he’s not wrong. With faint echoes of Belinda Carlile, it’s the sort of euphoric 80s pop banger you’d find on their debut, but even the most joyous musical moments on this record can’t escape from a grave deeper meaning- under closer inspection, “It’s Not Living” delves into Healy’s toxic love affair with heroin (“Collapse my veins wearing beautiful shoes; It’s not living if it’s not with you”).
Even after a few listens, A Brief Inquiry’s tracklisting proves to be near-impenetrable, and the ending is no exception. “Mine” is an ode to jazz musicians like John Coltrane, whilst “I Couldn’t Be More In Love” is an impassioned, blue-eyed soul anthem with a “proper key change” in the final chorus, something that’s usually reserved exclusively for X Factor winner’s songs nowadays (don’t worry, it works wonders here). However, it’s the album’s climax “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” that shines brightest here: it’s a lighters-out tearjerker destined for audiences amounting in the tens of thousands. In a record fraught with modern age paranoia, this song is a release, albeit a brief one.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships sees The 1975 stay true to their mantra: “Create in the way that we consume”- resulting in a record that’s probably as eclectic and as genre-spanning as their Spotify playlists. And while this record is certainly about the internet to a degree, it encapsulates so much more. Some of the greatest records simply capture a moment in time, and in a time as anxious and chaotic as 2018, this is no easy feat. Fortunately, The 1975 are a band well versed in defying expectations, and to say they’ve done a bloody good job of it would be an understatement. It’s quite funny then, that an album that was supposed to mark the end of an era, could in fact be the beginning of something very special.