As insufferable as the narrative can be surrounding The 1975 being the quintessential musical representation of modern life, both from journalists and – more vehemently and often less eloquently – the fans, there’s a certain amount of truth to that. Matty Healy is a good starting point all on his own as the flaky, narcissistic waster that he is (descriptions which he himself would likely take very little umbrage to), and fronting a band who’s output has frequently been defined by how self-serving it is, and how little in the way of forethought it seems to display. These are all totally neutral statements on their own, but it says a lot that as so much of indie-pop has caved and warped under the tremendous strain of keeping up with this band, The 1975 have only been flouting self-control more and more, and when I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It could be reasonably seen as both masterful and disastrous from any point of view, expectations for any future work have seemingly been relegated to bemusement and bracing for impact. It looks as though The 1975 are actually delivering something worthy of that as well, especially when A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is only the first part of a pair of releases, with the second due out in March. And why shouldn’t they do something like this? This millennial binge of a career has gotten The 1975 this far, and if they can continue to cling onto this train before it inevitably derails, the attention will no doubt rake in the benefits in the end.
And if that all sounds incredibly cynical and deflecting of what this album really has to offer, it’s because it is, but that’s the sort of reaction that The 1975’s music fosters nowadays. They’ve reached a point of stanned ubiquity where they’re immune to criticism from anyone within their tight circle of fans and the outlets that enable it, and like Twenty One Pilots on Trench, it’s something that they’re forced to grin and bear; naming the most prominent example of that on this album I Couldn’t Be More In Love is as telling as it gets. And yet, unlike Twenty One Pilots who had a prime opportunity to really take this sort of obsessive culture to task and bottled it, The 1975 feel a bit more ready; again, a greater deal of specificity could’ve made this a lot better, but in a more incisive look at modern society painted with unashamedly broad strokes, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is a surprisingly coherent and interesting listen.
And in a change of pace for albums of this stripe, there’s actually a fair amount to talk about within the instrumentation, as while its intentions of a collated omni-genre certainly fit with the album’s wider aim to represent / satirise the flighty, unfocused modern world, it’s easily where A Brief Inquiry… takes its greatest hit. It’s not even that it’s so much to unpack like so many others have made out; if anything, it’s about as concise a cross-section of the accessibility of all music from all eras and genres on one album as you’re likely to get, and with examples of ‘80s pop and power-balladry on It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You) and I Couldn’t Be More In Love respectively rubbing shoulders with the Coltrane-inspired jazz of Mine, the origins and intentions of this splatterpaint musical style aren’t nearly as cryptic as they’re made out to be. The problem is that The 1975 drastically overestimate what they can get away with in this regard, and the stark patches of unevenness and straight obnoxiousness simply aren’t pleasant to listen to. The excessive, drenched AutoTune on the tropical pop tick of TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME and the apparent “homage to Soundcloud rap” I Like America & America Likes Me are the most obvious culprits in their egregiousness, but then there’s the scratched-out guitar that slices through Give Yourself A Try and the spoken-word piece The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme read by Siri, both of which take the prospect of fitting in with a theme and prioritise it over being actually decent songs. At least the very nimble, slightly drained production keeps everything constrained enough so that it’s never too outlandish (it’s pretty much the only reason that the glitchy drum ‘n’ bass of How To Draw / Petrichor works at all), but it’s easy to see where The 1975 become tangled in their own pretensions of grandeur and boundary-pushing. The more straightforward indie-rock of Love It If We Made It and I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes) feel simultaneously complete yet open-ended enough to get more from, or even the slightly wonky but undeniably lush gospel of Sincerity Is Scary, but these perfectly workable avenues are blindsided in favour of steps into the unknown that barely even have any prospects of paying off from a musical perspective.
But on the same token, there’s a part of all of this that’s somewhat admirable, especially when it comes from a band the size of The 1975 potentially knowingly gutting themselves all to make a point. It’s not like you’d expect anything less from this band especially (because it’s only worth saying something if you can be the loudest in the room when doing it, right?), but it’s just fortunate that they do have points to make in this case. Circling back to Trench again, the overriding feeling regarding that album was the pressure to tilt towards the norm was what undid so much potential good; here, that’s not an issue, and that alone allows The 1975’s criticisms of modern life to feel more barbed and meaningful. That’s not always the case (see the very on-the-nose portrayal of right-wing commentators whose entire personae only exists from the safety of the internet on The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme), but more often than not, A Brief Inquiry… makes the points of its discussion and the layers of said points fairly well known and articulate. As the title would suggest, the primary focus is on modern relationships, particularly in their detachment and flightiness that forms the basis of tracks Inside Your Mind and Mine, where the cognitive functions marred by so much of the modern world have led to a lack of intimacy and trust. It’s where TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME shines the most in all honesty, a stupid, distant and almost meaningless pop song that uses every one of those descriptors to its advantage in rolling out repeated conversations in a relationship where trust and communication isn’t a factor. It’s a state of neurosis that, in the case of this album, becomes exacerbated by two main factors – the delicacy of a political and cultural balance that’s getting close to shattering every day as exemplified on Love It If We Made It, and the heroin use that sees Matty Healy falling victim to his own insecurities alongside everything around him. And that’s the point where the writing on A Brief Inquiry… really shows The 1975 living up to the potential the numerous puff pieces about them have been so quick to state, as Healy is giving his perspective from the eye of the storm. As much as the references to other people on this album are to show the extremes when the continuous buildup of pressure finally explodes – Jane taking her own life on Give Yourself A Try, Danny whose life is controlled by rampant drug abuse on It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You) and Angela who is consistently burdened by her depression on Surrounded By Heads And Bodies – they also serve as the stand-ins for Healy himself, caving under the weight that caused him to relapse and follow the same path all over again. And as trite as it might sound, it’s on I Couldn’t Be More In Love where his music and his fans reinstate his faith and convince him that getting back on the right path is the quickest way to things being alright once again.
It can be a bit much at times, particularly with the interweaving threads of ideas that only really coalesce after some consideration, but what does anyone expect from The 1975 at this point? Right now, making another straightforward indie-pop album is completely off the table, and while A Brief Inquiry… is enough of a convincing factor to believe that to be the case for a straightforward album of any kind, making it good is at least a consolation. And looking past all the hyperbole and over-excitement, this is a good album, though bogged down with a lack of consideration to make it a great one. It’s definitely overweight and burdened by a pretension that means it can be far more difficult than it rightfully should at points, but it’s a compelling listen all the same, buoyed by genuine, valid criticism and the sort of open personality that isn’t exactly commonplace for The 1975, but actually turns out to be quite a good fit for them. Of course, it’s not like any of that really matters to the diehard fans who’ll fawn over it without a second thought, but for the doubters or just those who’ve become so burned out on The 1975’s inescapable presence in the musical landscape, this might be something of a surprising and enlightening listen.
For fans of: MGMT, The Japanese House, Bleachers
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ by The 1975 is out now on Dirty Hit Records / Polydor Records.