Album Reviews Music

Notes On An Unconditional Form – Review

I have a troubled relationship with The 1975. When I first encountered their work, I was somewhat dumbfounded on how anyone could enjoy it. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before and was profoundly weird. In the following years, I grew to love their music, having seen them live on a few occasions. This, however, has always been matched by a somewhat distaste for the band’s narcissism. Whist I believe in self-confidence and morale-boosting, appearing on stage and introducing yourself as ‘the best band in the f****** world’ seems a little far. But, when this album was announced, I was somewhat excited, given how excellent their last album was. 

They waste no time in heading straight into their founded tradition of self-titled opening tracks. This particular version, however, stands at around 3 minutes longer than its predecessors, all which normally sit at just over a minute. Lying at the heart of this track is a speech by environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, in which she details the ongoing climate emergency, and shortfalls of human consumerism. Classically, these opening tracks sit as testament to the tone and mood of the album. This does not ring true for this album. Whilst Thunberg’s message stands poignant, the background music created by the band creates a wholly uninspiring ambience. The combined result finds itself dangerously close to the choruses of royalty free and unobtrusive soft instrumentation used frequently by media content farms on news soundbites, designed specifically for Facebook’s sharing algorithm. This, however, might equally be the point, as the focus of the ‘song’ lies on Thunberg’s words, rather than anything the band is doing. But, in terms of opening tracks, especially when there seems to be little to no further exploration of this topic, seems like a rather odd choice.

This is similarly met with the stark tonal contrast between the first and second track, in which frontman Matty Healy unleashed a punk-ish inspired rant telling the people to wake up. Whilst the first track might not have been able to set the tone of the album correctly, the difference between these two tracks certainly does. After People, the album wastes no time in bouncing from genre to genre, switching style and substance on almost every track. From country twang, to nostalgic 80s synths, all the way through to the soft-brass stabs that lie in surplus across the bands previous discography, this album is their most tonally confused yet. I’ve covered my thoughts on genre-fluidity in the past; I think by creating music unbound by strict and rigid genre labels, artists are able to create something truly interesting, providing it’s done for a purpose. For instance, Taylor Swift’s critically acclaimed Red jumps from genre to genre,  serving as a reflection of the confusion and unknowingness of emotion of a person in their early twenties. However, when The 1975 are jumping from gospel choirs to dodgy late night Ibiza remixes with seemingly no overarching narrative or purpose, it becomes hard to certify a reason for it. 

Source: Christianx14 – Wikimedia Commons

This inconsistency was equally reflected within the songs themselves. Where each track jumped across stylistic boundaries, it equally swapped between having an over occupied sound space, to a nearly empty one. A track like If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know) strikes a careful, and successful, balance in filling the space to maintain interest alongside a catchy hook, whereas Streaming finds itself devoid of anything noteworthy or interesting. In that regard, it certainly lives up to its name, as I can say that nobody would willingly buy a physical copy of this 1:33 throwaway jingle. 

One of the most surprising elements of the album was its length. Clocking in at 22 tracks, this is a long album by no stretch of the imagination. I was equally taken aback by the number of solely instrumental tracks, like Streaming. And, like the aforementioned track, they all seem to suffer from a lack of clear identity and purpose. To be quite frank, the album is around 7 or 8 tracks too long; sometimes less is indeed more. 

That being said, when the band hit their stride, they do so with great success. The best tracks on the album are ones that embrace the unique tone that the band have created over their last three albums. Tracks such as Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied and The Birthday Party revere their innately ‘1975’ feel. Their exploration of emotionality through interesting sounds and uncommon drum patterns help them sit quite comfortably within their other work. That’s not to say, however, that the band shouldn’t be exploring new boundaries; If You’re Too Shy stands as testament to how the band’s identity can be correctly transitioned into new styles without losing it’s core feeling. But there’s no denying that the tracks in which they play into their strengths are the most memorable.

I’m very torn on this album. It has some undeniable hits, but they’re almost equally matched in volume by just as many forgettable and confusing tracks. When looking at it overall, it feels closer to a collection of experimental singles and B-sides, as opposed to a convention album. But perhaps that’s the point, as the name alludes to the fact that these are Notes On An Unconditional Form, maybe the lack of homogenous narrative across its tracks is the point of it all. However, to me, this did not work, as it resulted in their weakest album yet. The stark contrast between the classically endearing singles and experimental tracks find the high quality music spread too thin across too many tracks, weakening what could have otherwise been a very strong album.