There is no sillier pop band than the 1975.
The Manchester group pursue so many ridiculous paths it’s clear their project is ridiculousness itself. Matty Healy’s lyrics mash varying shades of literary theory and erotic histrionics into a hybrid poetry that often fails to make the point you suspect was intended while achieving a stunning, daft confidence. They write epic guitar solos. They write meditative electronic compositions. They write fabulous pop hooks—the ultimate and most heartwarming proof of perversity.
When last we encountered our boys, in 2016, they were tinkering with synthpop glisten and R&B sparkle on I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it , writing flushed, breathless songs about longing (“This Must Be My Dream”), jealousy (“Somebody Else”), and Cartesian dualism (“The Ballad of Me and My Brain”). Their third album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, is supposedly their big statement about social media and the internet. Thankfully, they’re too playful to stay on theme for long.
The album abounds with surreal experiments, startling electronic squiggles, grand romantic declarations. Rock schemers have known since Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces that the best way to follow an album of exuberantly miserable love songs is with an album whose ostensibly political themes are in fact mere stand-ins for the same old catty melodrama. That synthesizer polish may indeed represent the cold technological barriers of our dystopian lives, but it’s also a mirror for Matty Healy’s most aching desires and exquisitely bleeding heart.
“Give Yourself a Try,” the lead single, sets the tone: over a piercing guitar riff whose amplifier fuzz merges with the metallic click of the drum machine, Healy croons a chin-up anthem for the band’s younger fans, although his advice mixes the uplifting (“Won’t you give yourself a try?”) with the questionable (“You learn a couple things when you get to my age/Like friends don’t lie and they all taste the same in the dark”). Throughout Brief Inquiry, Healy’s songs superficially resemble middlebrow-modernist social critiques but on further inspection morph into quiet moments of intimacy, delighted exclamations, kind words between friends. Even “Love It If We Made It,” in which he announces that “Modernity has failed us” after yelling out a bunch of tabloid headlines and presidential quotes, works; as a quite literal depiction of how external anxieties can disappear beneath the elation of a pounding beat and electric wind-tunnel noises, the song demonstrates what it means to lose yourself to dance.
As befits their reputation as a try-anything-once band, Brief Inquiry branches out into genre exercise. “Mine” is a relaxed swing ballad, swaying back and forth with the acoustic bass thump, while “Sincerity Is Scary” features a gospel choir and Roy Hargrove’s airy trumpet. It’s no hodgepodge, though; the album coheres totally. Several songs amplify Healy’s gargles and shrieks with Auto-Tune, several more deploy the breathy altered-voice blips of tropical house, and the guitars have gotten sharper and more percussive, erupting in bursts of controlled noise. They mix their pop bangers with ambient instrumental stretches because both modes share an antiseptic electronic gloss, although they’ll happily disrupt it with blats and jitters. The chirpy house piano on “TooTimeTooTimeTooTime” gleams, as do the crunches and glitches and distorted murmurs on “How to Draw/Petrichor,” which patters along like a robot that can’t decide if it wants to be a clock or a cash register. The overall effect is to embed the full-fledged songs in an ocean of static and sound. The translucent, shimmering musical surface is beautiful in itself.
The music says everything the 1975 needs about how desire is refracted through technology. The album’s weakest songs are those that attempt to explain the title theme. On “The Man Who Married a Robot/Love Theme” they make Siri read aloud a story about a poor strawman who falls in love with “the internet,” as tinkly piano chords complement the creepy robot voice; it’s as trite as “Fitter Happier” and Her combined. From pop stars who play with persona, you’d expect more empathy about one-sided romance. Anyway, it’s followed by “Inside Your Mind,” a scarier and more amusing romantic nightmare: in a spooky drone, Healy declares that he wants to crack open your head and burrow into your brain (“Maybe you’re dreaming you’re in love with me/The only option left is look and see inside your mind”), and the guitar crackle does this demented desire justice.
A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is too long, too much, littered with gaffes and dead spots and creative decisions to raise eyebrows at, and appropriately so—the 1975 make an argument for absurdity as a principle of life. By playing with symbols and themes, by feigning erotic investment in portentous existential questions, they make a welcome mess of the personal and the political. Excess becomes them.