Pull up your favorite music blog right now and you’ll find three things: something about Tekashi 6ix9ine, a breakdown of Kanye’s twitter rant on Drake’s sneak disses, and a glowing review of the new The 1975 album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. As of the publication of this review, the album stands at 87/100 on Metacritic, with ravings from no less than Pitchfork, DIY Magazine, and Exclaim!. NME sparked conversation online with their 5-star review by calling A Brief Inquiry the “millennial answer to OK Computer”. Clearly, this project has hype. But what exactly should one expect in return for all this hype?
Objective fans knew even before this album was released that, at this point, The 1975 is less a “band” and more of a backing group for a singer like Matty Healy (think Adam Levine to Maroon 5). The lead singles like “Give Yourself a Try” and “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” made this evidently clear. This left casual listeners like myself wondering: what direction would The 1975 be taking? What, exactly, would fans be getting as the “millennial answer to OK Computer”?
Not much, honestly.
The (relatively) better moments on this album come when the band plays it straight, keeps close to their comfort zone, and pumps out (relatively) solid pop tracks. Two forlorn acoustic ballads, “Be My Mistake” and “Surrounded By Heads And Bodies”, are decent examples (even if the latter may wear the band’s In Rainbows influences a bit too heavy on their sleeves).
“TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” is the band’s attempt at a gentrified riddim a la Drake’s “One Dance”. It’s less “reinventing the wheel” and more “putting the wheel in a shinier box”, but taken in the best light it shows off Healy’s ability to write a catchy-ass hook. Following this, we’re treated with “How to Draw / Petrichor”, which starts with a very pleasant musical passage, brings in some very cryptic, Bon Iver-esque vocal manipulations, before jumping into a semi-decent little glitch-drum breakdown in the latter half of the track.
A Brief Inquiry also gifts us with 80’s-era retreads off their last album, mainly “Inside Your Mind” and “It’s Not Living If It’s Not With You”. “Inside Your Mind” is a very-slow slow jam, with Healy drawing each note out so long it sounds like he’s drooling into the microphone (which comes off a lot better then you’d expect). The sentiment of “It’s Not Living If It’s Not With You” plays like a “Say Anything”-type wooing of Healy’s lost lover, except he brought a whole damn gospel choir in lieu of a boombox. It’s pure Huey Lewis revivalism, but it’s too sweet a track to right off as such.
Really, it’s when The 1975 starts moving out of straightforward, inoffensive pop tracks that the band loses focus. Take “Give Yourself a Try”, the first full song on the record after the intro track, which also doubles as the lead single for A Brief Inquiry. In a word, it’s bad. In two words, it’s very bad. As a primer for the rest of the album, it’s less starting on the right foot and more stepping on a rake and smacking yourself in the face. Move to the lyrics, where Healy offers advice to his younger self on how to be himself in a way that is both shallow, egotistical, and wholly unsurprising to anyone that’s listened to a 1975 album before.
Late in the track, we’re treated to a nice couplet about a 16-year-old fan of The 1975 named Jane, whose defining characteristics are:
A. possessing a tattoo of the band’s logo on her wrist,
B. the fact that she committed suicide, and
C. the fact that her suicide made Healy want to go outside more.
“Give Yourself A Try” is so frighteningly insensitive, it’s frankly dumbfounding that no one bothered to ask Healy to rethink how exactly he’s trying to convey his message on this track.
A few tracks later, we get Pitchfork’s 2018 Song of the Year, and the song maybe most emblematic of A Brief Inquiry as an album, “Love It If We Made It”. Breaking down this song properly by itself would take a review’s length of words, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll try to limit it to one paragraph. Healy explained to Genius that the song was the band trying to “make ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’, that kind of song that has that kind of narrative. And then other things we were listening to, but we wanted it to be super modern. I didn’t want to do a protest song, because it couldn’t be subjective, it had to be objective. Because there’s no opinion in ‘Love It If We Made It’, I’m not expressing an opinion. I’m shouting, so it sounds like, because I’m angry about the things I’m saying, but it’s just a list of stuff that happened.”
The instrumental of “Love It If We Made It” is a big, cavernous, anthemic jolt of energy, leaving plenty of room for Healy’s admittedly awesome vocal performance. Healy’s delivery on the song is dramatic, it’s aggressive, it’s manic, and it’s easily the most ear-grabbing performance he gives on A Brief Inquiry, in the best way possible. Healy sells every word to this song with more passion then he’s given to really any track in the band’s discography.
It’s the words, however, that end up failing this track. Healy spends most of the song incoherently rattling off the things seen on his Twitter feed today (here’s a taste: “A beach of drowning three-year olds / Rest in peace Lil Peep”). It’s less “Sign ‘O’ The Times” and more “We Didn’t Start The Fire” for people who got a New York Times subscription for their birthday. It’s The 1975 reaching to make a grander statement about modern life, but as Healy himself admits to Genius.com, “it’s just a list of stuff that happened.”
While youthful malaise is relatable in some respects, Healy is 29 years old. Invoking a refugee crisis, realizing that racism still exists (“Selling melanin and then suffocate the black man”) and that Donald Trump Is Bad (“‘I moved on her like a bitch’ / Excited to be indicted”) while also pushing 30 doesn’t make you cool or woke, it makes you upsettingly blind to the world you live in. “Love It If We Made It” is offensively unaware. Like so many other moments on this album, it’s Healy’s writing above all else that causes the band to perpetually step on their own feet as they try to march towards superstardom.
There are other unbearable and inexcusable moments on ‘A Brief Inquiry’. Take “I Like America & America Likes Me” for example, which is an awful attempt at Soundcloud rap. Just awful. Ostensibly about gun violence, the track consists mostly of Healy freewheeling over a very glossy trap instrumental. The autotune on Matty Healy’s voice sounds terrible, and the idea of the track is not fleshed out at all in the lyrics (save for one admittedly great line – “Kids don’t want rifles / They want Supreme”). “Mine” is The 1975’s attempt at (for some reason) a jazz standard. Literally, it’s not “jazz-influenced”, it’s just the band trying to make a jazz song. And it’s plain garbage. It sounds like someone tried to remake a Nat King Cole track using exclusively preset plugins in Ableton. It does not work at all, in any sense, and is also jarringly placed right after the aforementioned acoustic cut “Surrounded By Heads and Bodies”.
You also have cuts on this record like “Sincerity Is Scary”. Aesthetically, the song consists of Healy riffing about postmodernism over a Chance The Rapper typebeat, which combines to exactly as lame and incoherent a mess as you’d expect. A Brief Inquiry ends, as all things tend to do, with a Goo Goo Dolls tribute in “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)”. As if the band needed to remind their listeners at this point of how edgy their music is, the chorus of this song, which plays out through the end of the record, is Healy quite literally singing the line “I always wanna die sometimes”. It sounds in song exactly as stupid as it reads on paper.
A Brief Inquiry by no means is the worst album of the year, far from it. But to claim this album is the “millennial OK Computer” is to completely write off both the quality of and history surrounding Radiohead’s groundbreaking record. A Brief Inquiry, by contrast, is inconsistent. It runs through genres like flash cards, and The 1975 can’t decide whether they want their record to be the biggest album of the year or the soundtrack to your local Starbucks. And that may be the most frustrating part of this album; the fact that the album is just… fine.
With albums like these, you instinctively want to either jump in and love what everyone else is loving, or relish in your role as the one guy in the back shitting on everyone else’s parade. The truth is that neither of those are the case with A Brief Inquiry, because the album is just fine, decent, okay. That’s not what you want out of an album with such critical acclaim. The lyrics by and large are either bland as hell or dumb as hell. The instrumentals are rarely challenging, and their best moments are when they sound like older The 1975 songs.
A Brief Inquiry can absolutely be commended for being a bolder, more diverse album then most pop acts would be willing to make, but The 1975’s inability to receive any payoff for the risks they take is what ends up holding this album back.
Words by Sebastian Campbell