Nobody would ever accuse The 1975 of cutting corners or resting on its laurels. The British band spent time in a whopping 15 different studios during the nearly two-year genesis of Notes On A Conditional Form. Unsurprisingly, as what happens with many creative projects, the album expanded to fit this lengthy gestation. All told, the full-length clocks in at 22 songs and 80 minutes.
Of course, such an epic scope is nothing new for The 1975; after all, it’s the lyrically uber-confessional band that named its second album I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It. Grandiosity is The 1975’s preferred state—and the group generally makes its over-the-top approach work, mainly because its members are so earnest and enthusiastic about being so extra. In a recent interview with The Guardian, frontman Matty Healy rather succinctly summarized why The 1975’s albums are so widescreen: “I’ve been in the same band for 17 years. We make records and we live together. So it’s not striving to be bold; it’s avoiding being bored.”
On previous full-lengths, The 1975’s commitment to avoiding boredom gave the band a reputation as sonic dilettantes. That’s certainly not a bad thing: It’s impressive to find a band capable of pulling off glossy ’80s synth-pop and soulful piano balladry on the same album. However, Notes On A Conditional Form finds the group even more disinterested in repetition. Restless and ambitious, the album flits through twitchy electronica, Ride-caliber melodic shoegaze, ’90s alt-rock, soulful blues-pop, and incisive indie-folk.
Notes On A Conditional Form falters, however, because of its sequencing. Past 1975 albums smartly arranged their disparate songs much like a DJ might weave together an eclectic set. This time around, although individual moments stand out—“People” is a distorted blast of furious punk, “Me & You Together Song” is warm-’n’-fuzzy shoegaze, and “Yeah I Know” feels like a Radiohead B-side circa Kid A/Amnesiac—Notes On A Conditional Form is a jarring and fatiguing listening experience. Interstitial orchestral instrumentals feel like tacked-on filler rather than true segues, and the album never gains momentum: The band dips its toes into a style, and then immediately pulls back and moves on to something else.
This shallowness is frustrating, since it also extends to Notes On A Conditional Form’s lyrics. Although the album starts strong—elements of a passionate, spoken-word speech from climate change activist Greta Thunberg lead right into the galvanizing, pissed-off political statement “People”—Healy uncharacteristically dances around topics that deserve deeper thought, in the areas of gender, sexuality, and emotional vulnerability. “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” a duet with Phoebe Bridgers, touches on faith and forbidden love, but never delves into the motivations of the song’s characters. Elsewhere, “The Birthday Party” gets in some zingers about perceived wealth (“Drink your kombucha, buy an Ed Ruscha / Surely, it’s a print ’cause I’m not made of it”), but the song’s references to sobriety (“I depend on my friends to stay clean, as sad as it seems”) are begging for more exploration.
In fact, Notes On A Conditional Form is best on the songs when Healy jettisons big-picture statements and instead confronts anxiety about personal malaise and isolation, as on “Nothing Revealed/Nothing Denied”: “Life feels like a lie, I need something to be true / Is there anybody out there?” The album’s strongest moments hint that The 1975 are fatigued about being perceived as generational poster children, and might be much happier diving into more intimate, personal fare.
Unsurprisingly, the sonic hopscotch that once amplified the group’s singularity now feels like a liability; Notes On A Conditional Form feels less like a 1975 album than it does a hodgepodge collection of songs by a band trying on various sonic identities to see what fits. If anything, to understand and appreciate the record, don’t approach it as an album-length statement from one band, but as a personalized, diverse playlist curated by a favorite human tastemaker.