The 1975 run wild on the maximalist Notes on a Conditional Form
The band's latest album is a delightfully overstuffed collection featuring some of their best and most immediately pleasing work to date.
At this point, is there anything the 1975 can't do? The British phenoms have spent the last decade restlessly exploring myriad sub-genres of pop and rock. Their fourth album, Notes on a Conditional Form, is no different. Even for a band that's made a name on capital-letter boldness, their core songwriting team of Matthew Healy and George Daniel have truly let their creative id run wild over these 22 songs, delivering a delightfully overstuffed collection that features some of their best and most immediately pleasing work to date.
Since the release of the 1975's emo-tastic self-titled debut LP in 2013, Healy and Daniel have trained their listeners to expect the unexpected — fine-tuning the ability to turn on a dime from spiky 1980s-redolent pop-rock one minute to sonic left turns ranging from jazzy moonlit ballads, stadium-sized anthems about kicking heroin, or a monologue on internet life delivered entirely by a robot the next. This daring streak continues on Notes, which opens with a passionate speech delivered by climate change activist Greta Thunberg and takes pirate-radio detours through miniature electronic pop, big-room techno, shoegaze-drenched emo, and shouty political rock ripped straight from U.K. indie's raucous mid-2000s era.
Unlike many of their peers, it's increasingly difficult to point to any one creative influence the band is drawing from — and yet, Notes on a Conditional Form is the first album from the 1975 that explicitly recalls their past work, specifically their star-making second album I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It. That 2016 release showcased the band's embrace of total largesse, from its leg-stretching runtime to Healy and Daniel's kaleidoscopic scope. After the comparatively compact explosions of 2018's A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, Notes somehow ups I Like It's ante, boasting an 81-minute length to the former's comparatively modest 74-minute span.
As ever, there's lots to love here: "Me & You Together Song" finds Healy singing bittersweetly about dreams of family trips that never will be, laid atop one of the finest slices of jangly guitar since defunct Liverpool indie-pop heroes the La's were still an active concern. Anchored around a chipmunk'd sample of the Temptations' "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)," "Tonight I Wish I Was Your Boy" is effectively the 1975's bid for the ever-elusive "song of the summer" honorific, while "Nothing Revealed Everything Denied" features Healy rapping over a baggy hip-hop beat before breaking into a beautiful choir-led plea reminiscent of George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1.
If there's one stylistic throughline that courses through Notes, it's electronic pop and dance music — sounds that the 1975 have flirted with on every previous album, but never as immersively as they do here. "Yeah I Know" clicks and clacks with a skipping rhythm and Healy's submerged vocals not unlike the more approachable moments on Radiohead's Kid A, while the gorgeous piano-stabbed sighs of "I Think There's Something You Should Know" and "Frail State of Mind" evoke enigmatic UK producer Burial's own off-kilter approach to dance music. Most surprisingly, the voice of dancehall legend Cutty Ranks rings throughout "Shiny Collarbone," a thundering cut that sounds explicitly designed for sweaty clubs, basement raves, and other spaces that currently only exist in our own minds.
Along with Thunberg, Ranks' presence makes Notes the first 1975 album that features outside collaborators, and they aren't the only ones who contribute to its categorization-defying sprawl: FKA Twigs adds her vocal presence to the neon pop of "If You're Too Shy (Let Me Know)" and "What Should I Say," while Healy's own father Tim pitches in on the penultimate piano ballad "Don't Worry." Most strikingly, indie rock singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers duets with Healy on the heartstopping "Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America.”
The fact that the 1975 still sound like themselves (or, as much like themselves as a band who loves playing dress-up can sound like) after bringing in new blood is a testament to Healy and Daniel's vision — as is the aforementioned runtime, an intimidating all-on-the-table approach to sequencing that also risks triggering a sense of fatigue as a one-sitting listening experience. Perhaps it's most instructive to consume Notes as a document from a band that's thus far embodied the fickle omnivorousness of the streaming era: at your own pace, in sections or all at once. No matter how you take it apart, with Notes the 1975 have offered their most maximalist statement, and, as ever, the ultimate thrill lies in wondering where they'll go next.