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The 1975 - A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships Music Album Reviews

The British band’s outrageous and eclectic third album attests to the worth of putting in an honest effort in the face of near-constant gloom.

The 1975 dare to be too much. Led by frontman and lyricist Matty Healy, the quartet has made its name on an unruly brand of abundance throughout this decade: musically, referentially, emotionally, all of it. Did Healy pop pills, lick coke, and twirl a revolver before holding up a convenience store and getting shot in the torso—but ending up totally fine!—in the video for early hit “Robbers”? He did. Did they lavish the title I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it upon their second album because it was the only thing grandiloquent enough to match the record’s fizzy mix of sunblast synths, plastic guitars, and millenial neuroses? Of course. And did they preface their new LP, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, with a 24-page manifesto that includes manic scribbles (“THIS IDEA HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE”), a picture of Healy petting a dog whilst on the toilet, and a technophobic survey of our contemporary clusterfuck of an existence that concludes: “THE LEFT AND RIGHT GROW MORE APART BUT YOU CAN JUST CLICK ‘ADD TO CART.’” Yes, yes, and more yes. To infinity.

Such a riot of excess may cause the casual observer to think: Who the fuck do these guys think they are?! This is reasonable. But it is also misguided. Because the 1975 are a thrillingly unreasonable band for unreasonable times. Healy is their generational mouthpiece—a guy who’s never met a contradiction he couldn’t fully inhabit, to arresting effect.

The 29-year-old is a pop star who is both infatuated with and embarrassed by pop stardom. He will play his charismatic part onstage or in interviews and then immediately flog himself for doing so, as his incessant inner monologue does battle inside his skull. Five years ago, in an effort to quiet his brain buzz, he turned to heroin, and then to rehab, and is now a former addict who is wary of glamorizing the rock’n’roll clichés he’s lived through. He is constantly online and constantly alarmed by what that does to our sense of self, our humanity. He hates Trump but knows that talking about hating Trump is boring. He is the son of two British TV stars who, in his youth, was treated to regular family visits by the likes of Sting; he also once said, with a smile, that his “biggest fear” is “being Sting.” He’s an atheist who believes in a thing called love.

All of these curiosities play out spectacularly on A Brief Inquiry. The album is similar to its predecessor in its boundless sense of style, swerving from Afrobeats to brushed-snare jazz balladry to one track that sounds like a trap remix of a Bon Iver ayahuasca trip. But whereas I like it when you sleep sometimes could be a tick too clever and unwieldy, A Brief Inquiry, produced almost entirely by Healy and drummer George Daniel, is more purposeful. Take that Bon Iver-type freakout, “I Like America & America Likes Me,” where Healy’s voice is transformed into a smear of Auto-Tuned slogans, an adbot on the fritz. But listen closely and his bionic spasms start to sound like the meter readings of a society that’s moving too fast to process anything in a meaningful way. “Am I a liar?!/Will this help me lay down?!” Healy yelps, too harried to stop for answers, too wired to take a nap. It’s impossible to tell exactly where his actual voice ends and where the digitized effects take hold.

When it comes to the 1975’s more widescreen scope—filtering in culture’s ills along with personal ones—the album hits a daunting apex with “Love It If We Made It.” It is the rare Anthem for Our Time that actually gets the job done: This thing holds the mirror up to our collective faces so close you can see your breath on it. As gargantuan drums clear a path before him, Healy mimics the endless scroll, where dead refugees and dead rappers all slide by on the same timeline. He recasts one of the year’s most cursed tweets—“Thank you Kanye, very cool!”—into one of the year’s best lyrics, in turn laying bare Ye’s current fallen status as nothing more than mere flotsam for the churning news cycle. Healy repeats the track’s title for a vaguely optimistic hook, but his gasping delivery tells a different story. The song ends with staccato strings that recall a clock ruthlessly ticking down the seconds.

According to A Brief Inquiry, if there is any sort of solution to our modern apocalyptic predicament, it involves stepping outside, risking a broken heart, and searching for connections beyond the screen. And yet, Healy is the first one to acknowledge that this is harder than ever to do: The album’s only marriage is presented as a cautionary tale, read by Siri, about a troll who falls in love with the internet. “The Man Who Married a Robot” acts as a sly sequel to “Fitter Happier,” Radiohead’s doomsaying, robo-voiced nightmare from OK Computer. It sits atop a bed of treacly piano plinks, like a demented parody of a Facebook commercial that’s desperately trying to get you to log on again. In the end, the troll dies. The internet does not.

The members of the 1975 began playing together in their teens as an emo band, and they are still interested in wringing out unadulterated feeling from everything they touch. This is the thread that grounds even their most dubious dabblings, and makes their dilettantism amount to more than a series of stunts. At first, with its glistening synths and languid tempo, “I Couldn’t Be More in Love” seems like pure ’80s schmaltz, something that Michael Bolton could have cut between yacht rides. But instead of luxuriating in the musical ooze around him, Healy takes the slickness as a challenge and turns in his rawest performance on the entire album. Recorded the day before he entered rehab late last year, his vocals are frayed as he laments the end of a four-year relationship with the panic of a crashing pilot. When he howls, “What about these feelings I’ve got?” it sounds elemental, a refashioning of emo’s core into something jarring and new.

The album is bookended by a couple of songs that offer some hard-won comfort while nodding to the band’s hometown of Manchester and the lives they once led there. “Give Yourself a Try” is all pinched guitars and staticy drums, a salute to fellow Mancunians Joy Division and their singer, Ian Curtis, who killed himself at 23. On the song, Healy looks back at what he’s done, what he could have done better, and what he would do differently given the chance. He also mentions a 16-year-old 1975 fan who took her own life. “Won’t you give yourself a try?” he asks sweetly, over and over.

A Brief Inquiry ends with “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes),” the most life-affirming 1975 song to date. Its familiar fist-pump theatrics bring to mind the Glastonbury-leveling power of another one of Manchester’s most imposing bands, Oasis. But this is more than a tribute. Healy takes the broad ambition and jubilance of a classic Oasis song and turns it inward, with words that acknowledge the mettle it takes to simply get through the day—words that could only come from him. “There’s no point in buying concrete shoes/I’ll refuse,” he sings, resolute, before giving up one more plea: “If you can’t survive; just try.” Life becomes him.

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