A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
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As the 3rd installment in a (now four part) trilogy—more on that later—The 1975 are back with their first full length musical salvo since 2016’s critically acclaimed I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It. After touring heavily over the past few years in support of that effort, the boys from Manchester returned to the studio to see where new music would take them.
Initially touted as Music for Cars, these recording sessions proved so fruitful that A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is now the first in a two-parter of new music, refashioned as the Music for Cars era. You following?
So what’s the album like? Well due to a rush of tracks in the lead up to its release we got a pretty good taster in the neo-punk-pop lesson in growing up via “Give Yourself A Try,” the dancehall inspired “TooTimeTooTimeTooTime,” and the epically 1975ish sounding “Love It If We Made It.” It was a good cross section of flavors on offer to meet, set and defy expectations.
To be honest though, the first few singles were pleasing enough, but failed to really arrest me on first listen. Maybe it was the hangover of I Like It When You Sleep… that clouded my judgment. But I have to admit, whilst I warmed to them on repeated listens, I was tentative going into this album.
I shouldn’t have been.
As a band that always wore its influences proudly on its sleeve, The 1975 don’t shy away from embracing their inspirations and refashioning as needed. They even draw from their own back catalogue as a way of springing forward. In doing so they defy being pinned down to who they are. Are they pure pop? Are they ambient? Are they blue-eyed soul? Are they post-punk? Are they indie? Or are they mass? The answer is yes, d. all of the above.
Take a track like “How To Draw/Petrichor” with its glitch droning atmospherics. It challenges (or is it exposes) a pop audience to another musical style they may not be particularly well versed in. And then, as if rewarding those listeners for their indulgence of this musical detour, they back it up with “Love It If We Made It” which is The 1975 at their most 1975-ie-ist. Lyrically, as is the case here, the focus has evolved from internal to external with Matty Healy looking at the world around him for all its positive and negative. Here with “Love It If We Made It,” he uses a catchall approach drawing lines from social media, memes, and tweets (a whole verse dedicated to Donald Trump’s infamous Tweetstorms and utterings) as a criticism of modern living. It’s a reflection of the digital sound bites we find ourselves partaking in.
In the context of the idea of a trilogy of albums, the band has progressed from wishing for fame with their debut, attaining it via “I Like It When You Sleep…” and now recovering from it both physically and emotionally. Matty Healy’s well documented trip to rehab to curb his tendency for illicit substances has fostered a new perspective of the world. Less self-absorbed and deliberately narcissistic he, and the band in tow, has matured as a writer and musician. There’s still the lyrical twists, the witty bite and all too honest narrative but with a greater sense of perspective.
As a band that’s known for its bombast, the quiet moments on the album also carry weight. “Be My Mistake” is a soft acoustic confession and “Inside your Mind” an emotional ballad that longs for access to the unfettered thoughts of a lover. Both show the power in songwriting that sustains the album and can occasionally be overpowered by the multilayered production. “Inside Your Mind” especially, with its slow, heartfelt and drawn out delivery is built for arenas ablaze with thousands of sparkling cell phone flashlights.
“Sincerity is Scary” with its skipping off kilter hi-hat is a soulful look at the hopes and demise of relationships and the friendship fallout scattered in the ruins. “I Like America and America Likes me” is an examination of the unconscious (and sadly at times overtly conscious) threat of gun violence in modern living. Like a few of the tracks, it feels more like an exploration in sound and songwriting than being fully structured, and that’s not a bad thing.
The witty spoken word piece “The Man Who Married A Robot/Love Theme” is a Douglas Adams-esque look at our overdependence on our artificial relationship with the internet and the isolation it has forced on modern society. As with many of the songs, there’s a tongue in cheek brutish honesty at play; life without the glossy Instagram filters.
“It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is a catchy ‘80s inspired song that would be at home within a John Hughes film (or a modern day remake). Reflecting on the codependency of drugs and recovery, the song bounces with a sense of joy despite its darker undertones and root source of issues. It’s near irresistible and ironically addictive.
“Surrounded by Heads and Bodies” is a sleepy mellow ode to recovery and Healy’s companions on his isolated road to recovery, a fellow patient, and Angela and David Foster Wallace’s book, Infinite Jest for which the title is lifted from. Like many of the tracks on the album it adheres to a tight 3-minute running time. It’s focused and direct. And leaves you longing for a little more.
The jazzy torch song “Mine” is the surprise of the album. It’s unexpected and refreshing as a result. And “I Couldn’t Be More In Love” is a raw, soulful decree on relationships that have run out of care, thought and emotion.
Album closer “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” is the peak of the album, an epic, cinematic delivery of isolation, fear, and loneliness. It at once feels reflective and forward facing, a sonic return to ‘90s indie-rock anthems but given a very of-the-moment feel. It’s the perfect encapsulation of A Brief Inquiry as a whole, momentarily bleak but with a touch of hope for the future.
There’s been a lot of talk and comparison to Radiohead’s Ok Computer. I don’t think it’s a fair assessment to either outing. Sure, they are both reflections on our reliance on and relationships with technology, but to pass it off as a 2.0 version is a disservice.
With A Brief Inquiry, The 1975 have released an album that rivals the brilliance of I Like It When You Sleep and builds on it, arguably replacing it as their crowning moment. The album is less focused on the questioning heard across their previous records and finds The 1975 more confident in what it means to be The 1975. The only question it does leave you asking is, “Can an album released with a month to go in 2018 be called album of the year?” I’d argue yes. And it will bleed into 2019 with gusto.
Notable Tracks: “Love It If We Made It” | “Surrounded By Heads and Bodies” | “Sincerity Is Scary” | “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)”