Here’s a question for you. Who are The 1975? What kind of music do they make? I don’t know the answer anymore. I’m not sure the band themselves know either.
Put simply, Notes on a Conditional Form doesn’t really feel like one album. If anything, it comes across as two radically different albums mashed together.
One of these is a placid, chilled pop-rock album made for the airwaves, the other a more experimental record that jumbles up elements of garage and house – the kind of Musak that played in the background of H&M in a pre-lockdown era. Ambitious this is, cohesive this is not.
Even then, there are several outliers: classical interludes ‘The End (Music For Cars)’ and ‘Streaming’ for example, but most out of place is sort-of opener ‘People’. It’s easy to wonder whether the band wanted to have a punt at making an album that spans every genre of vaguely mainstream music possible.
Does it work though? The short answer is ‘sometimes’. The pop-rock side of the album is good fun; it’s more organic and down-to-earth, and ultimately it’s a sound that makes sense for The 1975. ‘Me And You Together Song’ is a catchy, jaunty tune with a playful guitar line carrying it along, while ‘Roadkill’ plays around with country vibes in a smart slice of experimentation.
It’s possible to suggest Notes On A Conditional Form is a little safe at times, made for mainstream listeners and wide-reaching appeal, but it is easy to enjoy nonetheless.
The same might not be said for ‘People’, three minutes of noisy post-punk anarchy that will raise eyebrows and drop jaws for reasons both good and bad. It’s a track likely to alienate some fans unaccustomed to music of that calibre, as it’s certainly not palatable to everyone. If you’re into rock music, you’ll enjoy it, but nevertheless, it’s somewhat confusing as to why The 1975 felt like doing an IDLES impression.
The other half of the album feels like the musical offspring of something like ‘How To Draw (Petrichor)’ taken from 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. In other words, it’s all a bit weird. Their formula is most successful on ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’, which manages to be the most dynamic and engaging of these quasi-dance tracks.
It has a clear sense of direction and progression, which might not be said about the groovy yet aimless ‘Having No Head’ or the overly repetitive ‘What Should I Say’. On the latter track and the likes of ‘Shiny Collarbone’, the band members feel eerily absent on their own songs. They don’t feel like songs made by a band; they could have easily left the studio while one guy sat alone with his laptop.
Lyrically, the record is somewhat inconsistent. Matty Healy is usually a fine lyricist, and he shines best when he is at his most earnest. The honesty with which he discusses mental health on ‘Frail State of Mind’ is striking and feels particularly authentic, as are his musings on repressed same-sex attraction alongside Phoebe Bridgers on ‘Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America’.
Other times, he falls a little short of his usual standards. ‘Yeah I Know’ is throwaway, ‘People’ lacks substance for the message it attempts to send out and then ‘Me And You Together Song’ opens with the cringeworthy declaration: “I can’t remember when we met / Because you didn’t have a top on”. Um… okay?
Notes On A Conditional Form is a long, long album, clocking up a running time just shy of a feature length film. More songs equates to more room for mistakes, of which there are plenty. The sentimentality of ‘Don’t Worry’ is ruined by overproduction and ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know’ is too 80s for its own good.
While 22 songs sounds good on paper, in reality, it’s just too long. It doesn’t quite engage the listener enough to keep from dragging, to the extent that at least a few songs feel superfluous.
The album is by no means a failure – I’ve seen at least a couple of one star reviews out there on the internet and that’s maybe a little harsh. For all its failings, there are good moments to be found and their ambition is laudable. A lesson to be learnt for Healy and Co. however – quantity is not always superior to quality.
Words by Emma Wilkes