The eagerly-anticipated third album from pop-rock foursome The 1975 has been advertised since 1st June in a series of cryptic messages on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and on thousands of posters on city walls - very ballsy considering the album was not even completed at this stage - but not altogether surprising from a band that likes to take risks. There have been five single releases drip fed monthly to the fans too – a genius plan or a brave stunt? After listening to their latest album “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships” ( released on 30th November through Dirty Hit/Polydor Records) I am leaning towards a bit of both.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is actually the first of a planned, two record release, with the second - Notes On A Conditional Form to follow in the Spring of next year and has, until recently been referenced as being the final instalment in a trilogy of albums by Matt Healy, the charismatic, brain-fizzing frontman. His original vision was for all three albums to form a narrative of his musical career. The starting point was chalked up as the promising 2013 EP Music for Cars followed by critically-acclaimed second album (with the most self-confident, brazen title of any album ever) - I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It to the proposed title of Music For Cars 2018 which would have then completed the circle of Healy’s journey “from adolescence to maturity whilst handling success”.
Healy scrapped this plan, however – mainly because he found he had so much to write about, so he took himself off to an LA studio with fellow band members (drummer and co-producer George Daniel, lead guitarist Adam Hann and bass guitarist Ross MacDonald) to produce not one but two albums to be released in short succession.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships opening track is titled The 1975 - like every previous record release. This time, it’s Healy apparently experimenting with soft piano then a spoken “OK” before shock-waves of his auto-tuned vocal blast over the rest. The intro serves as a brief announcement - “expect the unexpected”, because this is an album that has a brave unpredictability about it and isn’t covered by a specific genre as such. Give Yourself A Try and TOOTIMETOOTIME are both perfect examples of polished pop. Give Yourself A Try is a song about the anxieties of growing up as a millennial with eloquent lyrics, frenetic drum beats and edgy, electric guitars: “You learn a couple things when you get to my age/ Like friends don't lie and it all tastes the same in the dark/ When your vinyl and your coffee collection is a sign of the times/ You're getting spiritually enlightened at 29” whilst TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME bounces along with a bright, tropical beat, distorted “Cher”- esque vocal and a chorus so catchy it instantly appeals.
However, next track How To Draw/Petrichor throws you off the scent completely. It’s almost six minutes of experimental soundscaping, starting with what sounds like a school music lesson with all manner of instrumentation involved - xylophones, glockenspiels and woodwind sounds which combine to create an earthly, mystical atmosphere before the sound ramps up to a neon buzz of fuzzy electronica and an unrecognisable, heavily warped vocal from Healy. It’s certainly an inventive track but not one of the best songs on the album.
Love It If We Made It gets your attention straight away with Healy shouting out tortured and frantic against a pulsating beat- “we’re fucking in a car/ shooting heroin/ saying controversial things/ just for the hell of it”. It’s a song about what’s currently wrong with the world – the despairing news stories such as the drowned Syrian toddler, the Grenfell tower fire tragedy and the death of Lil Peep - punctuated with direct misogynist quotes from Trump - highlighting how disengaged and distant world leaders remain. But there is hope. The hope lies in the title of the song, which when played out, glistens with a retro-80s synth-pop sound. Healy isn’t giving up yet and the chorus is paradoxically optimistic in line with the many fractured narratives running through the song. This is what The 1975 excel at – writing clever, interesting lyrics about serious issues but with an upbeat and lightweight sound.
The pace changes again with one heart-breaking, beautiful ballad - Be My Mistake – a song about loneliness on the road whilst touring and infidelity. The tenderness and vulnerability offered by Healy’s vocal on this song give the subject of infidelity a sad poignancy whilst the simple acoustic guitar and faint twinkling piano add emotional weight. Healy sings delicately: “So don’t wait outside my hotel room/Just wait til I give you a sign/cos I get lonesome…sometimes”. Absolutely gorgeous.
Current single Sincerity Is Scary is a smooth, sultry jazz-infused track with soulful trumpets and easy piano. It’s a feel-good song, evocative of New York streets and rooftop bars – played out nicely in the accompanying video. The addition of the London Community Choir on the chorus lifts the soul and adds warmth – but ironically, this is a song about people who hide their emotions to stop them from getting hurt: “Why can’t we be friends?/when we are lovers/cause it always ends with us hating each other”. It’s an ace track and an album highlight.
The Man Who Married a Robot/Love Theme is a song central to the album’s “inquiry into online relationships”. It is desperately sad and endearing in equal measures. The voice of Siri narrates the story of a “lonely, lonely man who lived in a lonely house, in a lonely street, in a lonely part of the world" – (the man is referenced as his online pseudonym, @SnowflakeSmasher86) and his relationship with his best friend, The Internet. Siri tells of the over-sharing, the reliance and addictions of social media, the continued state of loneliness and how the man really loved The Internet until he passed away. Siri matter-of-factly says of his death - “you can go on his Facebook.” The backdrop of twinkling, wistful violin strings and piano lend poignancy to the song in contrast to the dark lyrics, producing a track that is really clever and ultimately thought-provoking.
Inside Your Mind slows the tempo down again and starts with bold piano notes and veiled violins before Healy (who seems to have a chameleon vocal – this time, sounding deeper in tone and sad) sings of loving someone and wanting to know what’s on their mind: “The back of your head is at the front of my mind/soon I’ll crack it open just to see what’s inside your mind” – and another irony in comparison with the openness so easily displayed with our thoughts and feelings online. It’s an absolutely lovely track, sparse in sound even when accompanied by a fuzzy loop of electric guitar.
It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You) sounds like a song straight out of an ‘80s romantic film, dreamy and straight-forward – but don’t be fooled by the easy guitars and heart-warming drum beats – this is all about Healy’s relationship with heroin: “And all I do is sit and think about you/If I knew what you’d do/Collapse my veins wearing beautiful shoes/It’s not Living if it’s not with you. “ It’s honest and lyrically smart.
The next three songs on the album are all of a different genre, scope and pace - from the stripped back, muted Surrounded By Heads and Bodies to Mine which shimmers with the glamour of golden-era Hollywood and “Cole Porter” laid-back jazz to I Couldn’t Be More In Love – a rework of the type of ‘90s AOR ballad that used to be released by the likes of Michael Bolton – its ace with silky keyboards, a slick guitar solo and an emotionally charged Healy (it was said to have been recorded a day before he went into rehab) so this may account for the intensity in his vocal: “ So, what about these feelings I've got?/ We got it wrong and you said you'd had enough/ What about these feelings I've got?/ What about these feelings I've got?”
The album closes with the majestic I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes) - an expansive, cinematic track that starts with promising piano and rich cello and builds to a climax with rolling drums and ascending guitars. It’s a stirring song about the difficult subject of contemplating suicide with the emotive lyric: “But your death it won’t happen to you/It happens to your family and friends.” The chorus is epic and will no doubt rouse stadium audiences as Healy repeats over and over in a strong falsetto “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)" until the song is brought to a close by lingering strings.
This is a brave and ambitious release from a band not afraid to push boundaries artistically. It hops genres with confidence and is daring and unexpected. It’s an eclectic mix of jazz, pop, ballads and anthems showing a musical diversity and a band embracing and exploring their creative freedom (the album was produced by Healy and drummer George Daniel).
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is an album that reflects on the modern day issues of technology, drugs, politics and relationships with a beating millennial heart that is honest and hopeful for the future.