Just look at the title. Outside of a far more pop-inclined eponymous debut album, the Manchester-based boys of the 1975 have always kept their audience at a certain psychic distance, carefully coded in their album names. With 2016’s I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It, churning inner feelings are relayed to a subject who is unconscious. With 2018’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships and 2020’s Notes on a Conditional Form, the 1975’s use the language of academic abstracts to seem as disconnected and unemotional as possible. Now, with the group’s fifth record, Being Funny in a Foreign Language, they claim to be comical in a way few can understand them. The 1975 are again keeping us at arm’s length away from their true intentions.
Of course, any fan of the band knows that the group’s appeal is in their messy overambition, with frontman Matty Healy’s seemingly confessional lyrics often bouncing off of the deft plastic guitar pop of Adam Hann and the precise percussion of George Daniel (who, along with Healy, are the only two credited writers on this Funny record). Their one-too-many-experiments often lead to at least a few stunning numbers, but even their failures were at least interesting to observe — and with Conditional Form‘s 22 tracks, there were several picks for each camp.
So for all the pre-release talk of paring Being Funny in a Foreign Language down to just the essentials, it’s amazing that across comparatively brisk 11 songs, the 1975 cover notably less thematic ground than before. It’s not simply because there are fewer songs to count: the group’s restraint has seemingly extended to their songwriting.
Despite a more liberal use of string sections this time out, Funny sounds like another album made by the 1975. Every full-length they’ve dropped has always had some ace-in-the-hole pop barnstormers, and for Funny, the winning singles “Happiness” (with a blissful outro where soulful sax duels with spiky rhythm guitar) and “I’m in Love With You” are undeniably catchy but are caught up in sentiments so obvious they feel somewhat hollow. On the other end of the spectrum, the acoustic schoolyard character study “Wintering” is laced with lines so disparate that you half expect Healy to shout “Parklife!” at the end of each verse. It’s confounding stuff.
“Every record I’ve made, I convinced myself that I had so much to prove, so it had to be about everything that ever happened, everything that’s happening now, and everything that could ever happen,” Healy noted during an August 2022 feature with Pitchfork. “But on this record, I said, ‘Instead of a magnum opus, what about more like a Polaroid?'”
It’s an intriguing way to view an album co-produced by noted megastar Jack Antonoff, who opens up the 1975’s sonic palette a bit but not to the point of radical reinvention. At its core, the songs on Funny have the same terminally online lyrics that have come to define the group, oscillating between groan-inducingly overwrought and flirting with genuine insight and pathos. On the LCD Soundsystem-indebted opener “The 1975”, Healy spits out words lines both legitimately funny (“I’m feeling apathetic after scrolling through hell / I think I’ve got a boner but I can’t really tell”) and painfully rote (“Qanon created a legitimate scene / But it was just some bloke in the Philippines”).
Yet on the daring lead single “Part of the Band”, a string-laden jumper that ends up being one of the 1975’s most fascinating turns against full-on bombast, Healy pegs his aesthetic quite viciously: “Am I ironically woke? The butt of my joke? / Or am I just some post-coke, average, skinny bloke calling his ego imagination?”
Healy remains keenly aware of how he’s perceived but can’t help but tumble into the same tropes that have garnered the group their divisive reputation. In the closing character study “When We Are Together”, cute descriptive sentiments (“I like socks with sandals / She’s more into scented candles”) run afoul of detours that exist almost for the sake of shock value (“It was poorly handled / The day we both got canceled / Because I’m a racist / And you’re some kind of slag”). While the 1975 have always had their lyrical contradictions and strange turns of phrase, rarely has their actual poetry and lyrical shitposting collided on the same song quite as they do on Funny.
For all its strange corridors, one of Funny‘s most stunning sentiments comes from a track that sounds like it was conceived as a Bruce Hornsby album cut. “Oh Caroline”, already nicking a title from a seminal Cheap Trick single, is a surprisingly affecting track about hopeless, unrequited devotion, pushing it so far to the extreme that the narrator is flirting with suicidal thoughts. “I’ll try anything that you want to / I’ll ‘find myself in the moonlight’ / ‘cos baby I want everything that you want / And I’ve tried to ‘just be me’ like a thousand times.” Whereas “I’m In Love With You” feels cloying to the point of saying nothing of substance, the 1975’s penchant for articulating the weirder corners of the human experience remains their greatest strength, as “Oh Caroline” proves. When they stop their self-referential naval gazing, the results are often deeply affecting.
That leaves Being Funny in a Foreign Language in a strange place. It’s not a statement album, a powerful detour, a quarantine record, or a step back in quality. It’s a set of 11 new songs from a group that often puts out two dozen at any given moment, and in trying to pare things down, they only end up sounding even more like themselves. That isn’t inherently a bad thing, as the reason people still listen to, write about, and debate the merits of the 1975 is that they drop undeniable pop-rock masterpieces every now and then. It’s hard to blame those that can’t put up with the group’s antics, but the group has undeniable chemistry that remains utterly distinct in the current radio landscape.
It’s great that the 1975 want to be funny in a foreign language, but this time out, their ambitions are tempered in plain English.