Is Notes on A Conditional Form a coherent questioning of socio-economic culture, or a mere collection of poorly pieced-together demos?
It’s the afternoon of the release day of The 1975’s polarising new album, Notes on A Conditional Form (NOACF). This is their final instalment of what frontman, Matty Healy, refers to as the band’s “Music for Cars” era. Overwhelmed, baffled, lost, excited, surprised, and… slightly frustrated – many fans feel like the singles released before NOACF set up a completely different expectation to the album in its entirety.
(Read Ruben’s article on the album’s singles here.)
CUB Magazine was lucky enough to receive the album ahead of its release date, so we held the privilege of watching the tidal wave of conflicting opinions unfolding upon timeline[s] ever since. Put simply, the initial excitement of the first listen has worn off, and we’re left struggling to gather any consistent stream of thought about NOACF. But, you have to Give Yourself a Try.
Expectation vs Reality
We expected that NOACF would showcase the band at its purest, especially since it’s titled after one of the band’s earlier releases. And somewhat… it does. There’s refreshment to be enjoyed in the absolute freedom and joy in creative expression that is found in this record. Nonetheless, Notes on a Conditional Form is unfortunately equally as inconsistent as it is earnest. For the apathetic listener; it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how NOACF makes you feel. The 1975, however, claim that this is a reflection of the turbulence of the contemporary climate as well as showcasing the complexity of the band itself (genius, or pretentious? With The 1975, we may never know). Nonetheless, there is striking accessibility within NOACF that hasn’t been felt from the band since their initial set of EPs, and their debut, self-titled album. This is despite the jarring and juxtaposing sequencing of tracks – blending a variety of BPMs, and feelings, in a seemingly untraceable paradigm.
At a colossal sum of 22 tracks, this album is not so much an album, but a lengthy journey. There-in lies the first critical junction: many listeners are elated with the abundance of content, viewing NOACF as brimming with creativity that contributes to a wider concept; yet, much of the album feels like it consists of filler tracks, perhaps more fitting elsewhere in The 1975’s discography.
Nonetheless, at its best, NOACF features some of George Daniel’s most flawless production to date.
The first 4 tracks reveal just how eclectic the album’s soundscape will be. Opening with the fourth variation of ‘The 1975’, NOACF once again turns expectations on its head. This time, ‘The 1975’ is completely reinvented beyond minor production changes, to a political spoken-word piece from environmental activist Greta Thunberg. The opening track calls for “civil disobedience”, played over parts of ‘Love Theme’ from last year’s LP – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (ABIIOR). This instrumental, audible throughout NOACF, is the glue that catalyses coherency over both albums of the Music For Cars era, that otherwise could not be more in opposition.
The End / The Beginning
After such a smooth (albeit politically charged) opening, it’s only fair that the delivery of the next track – ‘People’ audibly does a complete 180°. This track sees The 1975 flirting with their ostentatious reputation by proposing a satirical, brash commentary on the doomed state of the world. Lyrics like “WAKE UP, WAKE UP, WAKE UP / we are all appalling / and we need to stop just watching shit in bed”, are a complete smack in the face. Healy is again self-defining his generation as victims of the digital world. We would expect to see more of the same kind of punk protest throughout the record, especially since ‘People’ was NOACF’s second single. Unfortunately, again, these expectations are not met. It seems the momentum of the first two tracks are completely lost, as the record unexpectedly transcends into the first (of many) instrumentals – ‘The End (Music For Cars)’. This track provided an innate emotional quality, strong enough to turn on the waterworks. The track’s locus, however, is baffling. Why not bump this up a few places to settle next to ‘Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)’ or perhaps to the album’s actual conclusion? Even if considering this track as a literal bookend, it feels aloof from the rest of the record. But, hey, when have The 1975 ever been predictable?
The record then takes us into a new playing field, one with a wealth of UK Garage, trip-hop inspired tracks. ‘Frail State of Mind’ is one of these, seemingly picking up the album’s momentum. Again, this track suffers being ill-placed and would have worked better in the context of the whole record if it came after ‘The Birthday Party’. In ‘Frail State of Mind’, Healy comments on the struggles of social anxiety and depression that plague society, suggested to be a byproduct of the dependency we have on the digital world. Ironically for an album released during lockdown, Healy sings, “Go outside? Seems unlikely”.
Not Everyone is Invited to the Birthday Party
By track five, getting through the first section of the album is becoming more of an effort. It seems the band have opted for a reversal of the form their albums usually take; all of the biggest statements are placed at the start, coming in a welcoming and largely uninterrupted sequence. But, not here.
The following segment of this hyper-fragmented record is a fan favourite, leading us perfectly into what is the centrepiece of the 22 tracks. The transition from ‘Streaming’ into ‘The Birthday Party’ is the cream of the crop. A debut for the appropriate placement of an instrumental on this record, serving to encourage the album’s flow at a point where it’s most needed. ‘The Birthday Party’ is a warm, Dixie Chicks-esque, stream of consciousness in which Healy casually comments on his codependent friendships – “I depend on my friends to stay clean, as sad as it seems”. Calming vocal delivery and instrumentation coupled with the stunning visuals of its music video easily makes this one of the best The 1975 releases, of all time. ‘The Birthday Party’ feels like an indication of what the album could’ve been, without the dissonance that surrounds it.
‘Yeah I Know’ follows on from ‘The Birthday Party’, an unlikely transition but one that is executed surprisingly well this time, considering how contrary the two tracks are, sonically. Opening with the muted and modulated synth and later joined by electronic drum and auto-tuned vocals, ‘Yeah I Know’ is a groovy, glitchy electronic, bop. The track seems somewhat inspired by Radiohead’s ‘Idioteque’ and informed by tracks such as ‘How To Draw / Petrichor’ from Radiohead’s 2018 ‘Inquiry’. It sees The 1975 successfully experimenting further with the more fresh-sounding, brash and ambitious aspects of their earlier releases.
The record then takes a welcomed plunge into a series of tracks that are held together by the (curiously) uncredited vocals of Phoebe Bridgers. Many were outraged that a band priding themselves on exposing inequality, would decline to credit any of the women that collaborated on their highly-anticipated album. Numerous fans took to Twitter, calling the band out for not crediting Bridgers in the song’s title or promo.
Jamie Oborne, The 1975’s manager responded via twitter:
No we just wanted it to be discovered by the listener by hearing it as opposed to reading it first. We wanted to preserve that. Phoebe and Matty both agreed on this. X https://t.co/DMVaqsHa64
— Jamie Oborne (@jamieoborne) April 3, 2020
This is despite the fact that Bridgers (although immeasurably talented) is significantly less well-known than The 1975 – having 132.7K Twitter followers and 2M monthly Spotify listeners, in comparison to The 1975’s 2.1M twitter followers and 12M monthly Spotify listeners.
Before we get to the Bridgers tracks, however, we have the dream-pop-come-shoegaze ‘Then Because She Goes’. Reverb-drenched guitar paired with Healy’s soft, mid-tonal vocals perfectly encapsulates the heart-breaking innocence of young love. He sings, “You are mine, I’ve been drowning in you”. The song embodies influence from all of our favourite aspects of music. A lonely complaint is that the track should be longer. It seems to show how the band have kept the good parts short and exhausted the mediocre on this record.
Next, there is another unexpected turn back to the more folk-influenced parts of the album. Although this is another unlikely transition, somehow, it works, and the tracklisting seems to flow here, more than ever.
Gay, or Nay?
The ridiculously titled ‘Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America’ is a vulnerable exploration of the struggles of sexuality. Healy sarcastically professes his ‘love’ for Jesus Christ before Bridgers tells the story of her coming to terms with falling in love with the girl next door, named ‘Claire’. She sings, unashamedly,
“Nice when she comes round to call/ But masturbate the second she’s not there”
This is remarkably refreshing to hear in a song released by a band that has entered the mainstream. Although the minimal production on this one is done flawlessly, it is a shame that Bridgers goes uncredited in the title – her verse, above anything else, is what keeps the song alive.
Healy then showcases more of his new-found affinity for country-folk influences, in ‘Roadkill’ – an account of his experience touring America. The track contains the controversial homophobic slur used by Healy, explaining himself as“an effeminate gay-rights activist with long hair, a skirt, and a rainbow t-shirt, in an airport in middle America late at night,” in an airport gift shop, when “A drunk conservative guy called [him] a fag.”
It goes without saying that the lyric lacks context and should not be used by someone that does not identify as a gay man. Healy has been accused of fueling unwarranted speculation around his sexuality all too often. This lyric only further validates the opinion that Healy has a strange obsession with male homosexuality, which already reared its head after Healy kissed a male fan in the crowd in Dubai – a country where homosexuality is illegal and punishable. Could this act be seen as a positive refusal of homophobic legislation, or potentially putting a fan’s life in danger?
“Feeling like someone, somebody else”
‘Me and You Together Song’ is a return to the dream-pop-esque reverb, shoegaze guitar we see in ‘Then Because She Goes’. Light-hearted lyrics permeate the jubilant instrumentation: “We went to Winter Wonderland / It was shit, but we were happy” – sickly sweet.
The electro-ambient-trip-hop of ‘Frail State of Mind’ and ‘Yeah I Know’ then returns with ‘I Think There’s Something You Should Know’. It’s easy to adore this track. Healy further explores his struggle with mental illness, with incredible honesty. Referencing one of the band’s most successful releases, ‘Somebody Else’, he repeats
“Feeling like someone, somebody else, who don’t feel themself./ Paying for their wealth with their mental health./ I’d like to meet myself and swap clothes”.
These lyrics perfectly capture the off-putting experience of being outside of your own body – whether disassociating, depressed, or feeling like you’ve lost yourself. This track resonates with the way that listening to NOACF makes listeners feel – constantly fleeting, never undulating emotions that you’re trapped in, and forced to feel (but, admittedly in a good way).
‘Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied’ further comments on the band’s past with strong reference to the ‘guitar-n-b’ label – coined by their earliest critics. The track is Healy deconstructing his carefully created persona at full speed – “I never fucked in a car, I was lying”, whilst reiterating his rap abilities (see ‘Loving Someone’). ‘Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied’ also welcomes the return of The London Community Gospel Choir, adding dimension to the synthesis we have come to recognise as The 1975’s sound.
Everything’s Getting a Bit Weird
‘Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)’ is the groovy, relaxed pop track which is the second collaborative effort between The 1975, and fellow Dirty Hit signee (again, uncredited), No Rome. The track samples ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)’ by The Temptations and sees Healy admitting that yearning for the possibility of a relationship with his lover is pointless and “Fucked… royally”. Although this track is perhaps another anomaly in the context of the record, you can appreciate it for its ability to bring the middle of the album to a relaxing end.
This is all before ‘Shiny Collarbone’ – a glorious electronic movement – loudly interrupts the transition into the track which presents itself as the epitome of The 1975: ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’. This track is as brash and ‘in your face’ as the second track ‘People’. And we love it. A ton of sax and delayed guitar punctuates the haunting (and again, uncredited) backing vocals from FKA Twigs. The 80s-synthpop-style commentary on digital intimacy takes you by surprise and is a definite peak in this largely exhausted body of work. A definite hip-swayer ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’ calls on the band’s earlier, poppier sound, that we’re all missing a little bit.
NOACF comes to a welcomed halt with ‘Playing on My Mind’ in preparation for its ending. Another guitar-led self-introspection, Healy again questions online intimacy (we’re sensing a theme here), he queries, “I won’t get clothes online ‘cause I get worried about the fit./But that rule don’t apply to my relationships”. It’s sad-boy hours, folks.
The End / Feeling Some Type of Way
‘Having No Head’ is a gorgeous instrumental that we would appreciate more if it wasn’t so unnecessarily long! At 6 minutes it seems reluctant to end. The track that follows, ‘What Should I Say’, is a house number that, again, seems to come too late in the album and screams for a verse from an artist like Charli XCX. (Not that she would be credited, anyway.) It feels unfinished. And yet again, although ‘Bagsy Not In Net’ is probably one of the best tracks on the album, it feels detached. Synthesised strings balance the bouncy production that edges on feeling like it should hit a little harder, ultimately retreating back into softness: “Leaving you here is the thing that I fear, so I fight it”.
‘Don’t Worry’ is an emotional father-son duet, written by Healy’s father, Tim Healy, for his mother, Denise Welch, who struggles with depression. Matty’s tender voice complements his father’s old-school gravelly tone for lyrics such as “Don’t worry darling, the sun will shine through”, cloaked in Justin Vernon-style aberrant production. ‘Don’t Worry’ wraps up the album nicely before the last track, ‘Guys’ – an earnest ode to long-lasting friendships in the band. As a single, this one felt underwhelming, lacking something when alone, but powerful when utilised as the record’s denouement – sincerely restating “you guys are the best thing that ever happened to me”.
There are numerous subjective lenses through which you could perceive this body of work, and the majority of perspectives are battling each other for existence. Especially, viewing this piece of work as a fan. But, from the objective point of view as critics, the ambitious statement this album aims for is admirable, yet overshadowed by its jarring dissonance. Notes on a Conditional Form challenges what we know about The 1975, but does not pose any surprises. At 22-tracks, the album seems to crumble past the point of epitome, or satire, to verge on excess.
Nonetheless, the album marks an exciting new chapter for The 1975, bookmarking the emergence of a new decade.
Ultimately, Notes on a Conditional Form feels like an apt illustration for the situation we’re currently submerged in, teaching us to expect the unexpected.