Learning to enjoy the 1975 has always required a certain suspension of disbelief. If you can believe that a boy-band-pretty synth-pop quartet from Manchester with a poodle-haired lead singer can create nuanced, voice-of-a-generation anthems hidden inside layers upon layers of irony and bombast, then consider yourself a fan. Matty Healy, the group’s frontman and primary lyricist, may be Gen Y’s premier rock star: a 31-year-old who is as disgusted by fame as he is enthralled by it, a former drug addict who still writes love songs to heroin, a musician more comfortable with his laptop than his guitar, a performer who is just as likely to show up onstage in an oversize parka and tulle skirt as he is shirtless with skinny jeans.
Notes on a Conditional Form, the band’s sprawling new 22-track release, is meant as Part Two in their ongoing/drawn-out/long-delayed project Music for Cars, and a sequel to their 2018 LP, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. That album, produced by Healy and drummer George Daniel, was their most succinct work to date; though its influences were vast-ranging, from Brit pop to Soundcloud rap, its themes deftly weaved together both the overwhelming political upheavals of our current era and the anxieties felt by its politically conscious youth. One track in particular, the frantic and lyrically stuffed “Love It If We Made It,” has often been called this generation’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” But what made Healy’s take on the “anthem ripped straight from the headlines” so unique was that it captured an earnest and very online feeling of 2010s dread — a mix of panic and disdain familiar to anyone who’s scrolled through Twitter after a Trump press conference.
This album takes a different, more meandering approach compared to Brief Inquiry, and that may be its greatest weakness: Notes on a Conditional Form is simply too long. The 1975 have always walked a fine line between meaningful homage and blatant ripoff when it comes to their sonic influences, whether they be Joy Division, David Bowie, the Blue Nile, or Lil Uzi Vert. Here, they take more inspiration from legendary British dubstep producer Burial, and some of the results are gorgeous, like on the piano-driven “I Think There’s Something You Should Know,” gliding through the middle of the record like a monorail. But in a half-dozen instrumental tracks scattered throughout the album, without Healy’s lyrics, these experiments fall flat; they lack much of the 1975’s DNA. When Healy does step in, his songwriting largely evades diaristic confessions or soapboxing in favor of something more impressionistic, and it doesn’t always work. He’ll play a character, sometimes multiple across one song, but it can be hard to tell what he’s getting at. That’s the case with “The Birthday Party,” where he throws in a bizarre, awkward reference to the controversial emo band Pinegrove before embarking on a dull conversation with a girl named Mel, which takes up half the song and doesn’t go much of anywhere. And, sure, that may be the point, but did we really need a five-minute track to remind us that small talk at parties can be boring?
Still, where Notes works, the 1975 prove themselves to be surprisingly efficient craftsmen, even as they sound ridiculous. Leading from the album’s Greta Thunberg opener into the Nine Inch Nails-esque screamfest “People” is a brilliant move on their part, as Healy follows up the climate activist’s eloquent speech with his own equally urgent manifesto: “The economy’s a goner/Republic’s a banana/Ignore it if you wanna/Fuck it, I’m just gonna/Get girls, food, gear/I don’t like going outside/So bring me everything here.” The satirical religious folk tune “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” would be cringey if not for the song’s guest feature Phoebe Bridgers, who — in her bright, calm voice — states how she used to furiously masturbate to a girl crush who lived next door. Healy once sang about how sincerity is scary, but the album closes with the 1975’s most earnest song of all, “Guys,” an ode to the foursome’s own friendship. “The moment that we started a band was the best thing that ever happened,” Healy sings to his bandmates of 18 years. “And I wish that we could do it again.” Luckily, he doesn’t have to imagine that sort of reinvention — the band’s chameleonic sound and mutable hot takes are what ultimately keep listeners coming back for more.