How can a hot mess such as this still be so enjoyable?
The opening few tracks make absolutely no sense together but display the full flexibility and range of Matty Healy and keeps you hanging to see what toolkit they will wheel out next. Whether this eclectic approach of styles is genius or ridiculous is the basis of the question posed above.
The album plays like a playlist. It jumps from genre to genre, where each track doesn’t necessarily jar with the previous one but it never stays in one place long enough to give itself an identity – either as an album or a playlist. The album feels like 3 distinct EPs (or at the length of this project, LPs!) jumbled together with a few placeless offcuts seemingly too good to throw away. The album suffers from bloat – running to 1-hour and 20 minutes – and a lack of direction or overarching creative vision.
A project of this size and scope is not without comparison. Both Foals and Coldplay have released similarly lengthy or creatively ambitious project in the last year. Both of these releases can help us understand NOACFs shortcomings.
When compared to Foals 80-minute opus Everything Not Saves Will Be Lost you can see quite starkly the lack of focus form The 1975 where Foals remained laser focussed in their delivery, keeping a close watch on quality and consistency across the quantity. Foals kept a consistent theme that evolved to create a sonic environment within which they can play and push boundaries while remaining coherent. NOACF delivers a little bit of a lot of things to the extent that the potential larger impact to get lost in the collage.
One could look to the album title – Notes on a Conditional Form – for justification for the scrapbook feel. I used similar reasoning and defence when covering Coldplay’s Everyday Life and how it navigated a similarly diverse range of work. However, the lack of specific creative vision and overall coherence of NOACF is exposed here too. Coldplay created a varied canvas of tracks where no single track was like any other to create a mural reflecting a globe of music through their eyes. Meanwhile The 1975 here present tracks of about 3 to 4 distinct styles none of which are fully fleshed out to a full album quantity and so thrown into a tracklist seemingly at random then some tweaked at the start for impact.
Let’s look at those opening tracks a little closer to demonstrate.
The album opens with the now-customary self-titled track in ambient form. these tracks on previous album have generally taken sounds and parts from the rest of the album to create an overture. This track diverts form that for the first time, instead opting for a 5-minute spoken-word piece care-of environmental campaigner, Greta Thunberg. This track was mercilessly opportunistic on release at the height of her campaign and the plastic debate. It just about makes the following, equally out of character track, make sense as Greta finishes with “it is time, to rebel” as the rowdy, chaotic and electrifying punk-grunge People comes crashing in screaming at you to “WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!”. I like the switch attack between the two and I think it has a great impact and takes you by surprise in a good way. Track three, The End (Music for Cars), then switches to a sweeping orchestral rise from nowhere sounding epic yet transitional. A beautiful track for sure, but it would be much better suited to opening a record or marking a halfway point change in style or theme. I suppose it achieve the latter but when used as the third track of a 22 track album it is entirely wasted as the next track, Frail State of Mind, is a more ‘traditional’ sound for the band accented with glitchy drum rhythms. Back to the orchestra for two minutes on Streaming before reverting to the back-to-basics The Birthday Party.
It is erratic, it is directionless and by the time you land at this track you are 20 minutes in (half a normal album length) and you don’t feel like anything has actually started yet and have no idea what it will be once it gets going – if it ever does. It’s exhausting. However, nothing you hear to this point is bad! Each track taken on its own merit is very good. Well produced, well written, creatively diverse and compelling. I just really wish anything felt like it was part of a greater whole.
Maybe this is the strategy. they haven’t conformed to standard album lengths in their career to date so why start now? One can only assume an executive said they needed to stay under 80 minutes to keep the vinyl release to 2 disks and thereby keep costs down and sales up. Either that or more frequent, better-focused releases were blocked by decision-makers. This would have been a much better approach in my view. Collate the 3 distinct styles interwoven here on EPs and then release them as an anthology album – possibly with added interludes of stuff that didn’t thematically fit. Would have made more money that way while also displaying some vision for their output.
The approach taken here seems like a cynical attitude towards the industry, playing the game for what it is now worth: for the streams. They know their record will mostly be consumed on streaming sites. That’s their demographic. So it makes no odds to them if the product makes sense so long as they have a track for every playlist and if someone does put on the album the variety will keep even listeners with minuscule attention spans interested while racking up the streaming numbers. It’s all worth the same to them so why bother with creative coherence at all?
I suppose the creative counter to this is that they can create whatever music they want. That’s ostensibly a good thing but why then package it up in an album form with no regard for the bigger picture that entails? The new world of music where we are no longer bound by vinyl capacity and less and less by radio-friendly run times brings with it a wealth of opportunity for expression and release methods. However, right now The 1975 don’t seem to be leveraging this and instead sound like a band not only with no clear direction but also no one to tell them “No.” and that is a dangerous thing.
The frustration is that there are good ideas here that are congruent but the playlisting and lack of clear definition means none of it is realised. There is clearly a lineation here where ambience turns orchestral and then takes on electronic elements, with or without vocals that could then explode into a fine set of celebratory pop songs and touching ballads. However, the track-listing does not allow this to be seen and I’ll be damned if I’m going to rearrange it for them!
So where does the album shine? Aside from the opening one-two transition, If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know) may just be their best pop song to date though it finds competition on this record in Me and You Together Song. For me where they take a creative leap of faith like with Shiny Collarbone – a darker, electronic track with MC overdubs – is where their work presented here gets exciting. People, mentioned earlier, is another similar exciting departure.
The scattergun presentation uncovers another more serious form of cynicism than that outlined above though. It means they have a track for every playlist. Yes, I said that above, but now I present it in a negative light. It gives a feeling of how they appeal to everyone yet pleasing no one simply to get the streams. There are ambient ethereal tracks like the opener and Having no Head which would appeal to the IDM crew, Shiny Collarbone scratches the MC, drum and bass itch, Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America gives something to Christian Rock fans and Playing on My Mind is for every anxious teenage girl listening in their bedroom. Then Because She Goes offers up 90’s garage rock and Frail State of Mind hits the glitch-pop vibe very well. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while Guys is saccharine but the first honest, uncynical expression on the record … …it’s the final track…
Overall, some great ideas most of which are individually well-executed but as a complete project it feels like an IKEA self-assembly album where they have chucked the tracks at you to put together in the correct order. Sorry guys, but that is your job. If you ever take to doing painting or photography, please don’t believe that an unfinished jigsaw puzzle is worthy of hanging on the wall.
People, Shiny Collarbone, If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know), Frail State of Mind