The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling
The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.
Notes on a Conditional Form
22 May 2020
Although they formed in the early 2000s, English quartet the 1975 didn't release their eponymous debut LP until 2013. From there, they quickly became one of the most wide-ranging, striving, and enigmatic popular bands of the last decade. By interweaving hip-hip, synthpop, alternative rock, R&B, and new wave into different "campaign cycles" (sets of thematically and visually connected LPs) and conceptual agendas, the group elevate the artistry and significance of commercialized music at a time when far too many of their contemporaries are content to go with the flow.
Thankfully, that holds true for Notes on a Conditional Form, which very much feels like a follow-up to 2018's A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. Like that record, its perpetual shifts in style—matched with its undeniable self-important grandeur—will prove contentious for many listeners (just as its predecessor did for us). But, those qualities are also what make Notes on a Conditional Form commendably changeable, aspiring, and surprising. As always, the 1975 have something to say and novel ways to say it, so while they may be chomping off more than they can chew once again, at least they're still aiming for more than the little bites of their peers.
Just as the covers of The 1975 and I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It connected the band's introductory full-length duo, the artwork of Notes on a Conditional Form links it to A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. It's billed as the second entry into the band's third catalogue chapter, "Music for Cars" (named after their third EP). It tackles topics such as romance, youth, and politics while—as vocalist Matthew Healy told BBC Radio 1 host Annie Mac—being influenced by "British nighttime culture". Broken into nearly two dozen tracks that cumulatively last over 80 minutes, it's as if Panic! at the Disco and Childish Gambino teamed up to embody the current zeitgeist in a song suite a la Field Music's Making a New World or Sloan's Never Hear the End of it. With guests like FKA Twigs, Phoebe Bridgers, Cutty Ranks, and even Healy's father, Tim, popping up here and there, the album is contemplative and chameleonic from start to finish.
As usual, the LP begins with a self-titled prelude that sets the mood for what's to come; this time, however, it's especially weighty because it places teenage activist Greta Thunberg's emotional plea to prevent environmental disaster on top of ambient piano notes and strings. It's quite evocative and gripping, pinpointing precisely why Notes on a Conditional Form is far more than just a collection of tunes. Afterward, the glam-punk "People" detonates like an immensely raucous lost Blur tune, placing sharp guitar riffs and renegade percussion beneath earsplitting declarations such as "Well my generation wanna / Fuck Barack Obama / Living in a sauna / With legal marijuana." The juxtaposition between these two tracks alone signifies how captivating and unpredictable the whole experience becomes.
On that note, instrumental pieces like "The End (Music for Cars)", "Streaming", and "Having No Head" serve as either gravely symphonic or manically programmed interludes that give their adjacent sentiments more unity and purpose. Later, "The Birthday Party" offers a whimsical and charming bit of electronic Americana. "Then Because She Goes" is pop/rock at its most sparklingly sleek. "Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America" is a lovely existential folk duet between Healy and Bridgers. "Shiny Collarbone" blends Cutty Ranks' traditional Jamaican dancehall with the sequence's trip-hop throughline.
Meanwhile, "If You're Too Shy (Let Me Know)" finds FKA Twigs' backing vocals enhancing its 1980s synthpop excess and catchiness (complete with a bouncy saxophone solo). Virtually every other track has its own flavor, too, so while some listeners may find the constant tonal transformations disorienting (while causing the LP to suffer an identity crisis), others—such as myself—will adore its relentless stylistic flexibility and determination.
For some people, an album should merely entertain and be united by a shared aesthetic. For others, an album should confront important political, societal, and individual themes while exploring a vast array of genres and production approaches. In the case of Notes on a Conditional Form, the 1975 have chosen to do everything at once, resulting in a long journey that could be passed off as an all-in-one collection of different EPs (each with their own artistic formula and intellectual resolve). In many ways, it's a lot to take in at once, but that's not necessarily a bad thing because it shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today. Even if it's not always coherent, it's at least laudably thought-provoking and thrilling.
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