How To Remain A Rock Star And Get Great Reviews In 2018
The 1975-A BRIEF INQUIRY INTO ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS (Dirty Hit/Interscope)
Two years ago, the 1975 were popular enough to have a #1 album in the U.S. and go gold but not yet the critics’ darlings they are now. Their latest album, A BRIEF INQUIRY INTO ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS, has changed that. It’s one of the best-reviewed albums of 2018, with Stereogum critic Ryan Leas writing a lengthy and passionate piece about it. Some clue as to what’s behind this praise might be seen in the New York Times profile of singer Matt Healy which began with “To be a young rock star in 2018 is to be racked with anxiety and self-consciousness about what it means to be a young rock star in 2018.” Healy has been appointed the spokesperson for millennials in much the way that Lena Dunham did when GIRLS debuted. She’s taken a big tumble since then, but Healy’s at the peak of his acclaim. Just as Dunham’s character called herself the voice of her generation in an early episode of GIRLS, “Give Yourself a Try” is self-conscious enough to refer to himself as a “millennial that baby boomers like” and offer advice to his younger self (and, implicitly, to the band’s audience.) Subtlety and humility aren’t the band’s strong points.
I’m suspicious of the way A BRIEF INQUIRY INTO ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS has been set up as the contemporary equivalent of Radiohead’s OK COMPUTER, down to the spoken word track “The Man Who Married a Robot/Love Theme” being an exact parallel to “Fitter Happier.” A big difference between the two albums is that Radiohead’s lyrics mostly consist of vague expressions of alienation and melancholy — “Bring down the government/They don’t speak for us” on “No Surprises,” a song written as a suicide note, is an outlier — that could speak to people across the political spectrum while “The Man Who Married a Robot/Love Theme” offers a two-minute story of the false promises of the Internet, spoken in a computerized voice instead of sung. “Love It If We Made It” runs down a list of contemporary ills in a deliberately glib fashion a la Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” that mimics the damaged attention span and rush of issues forgotten about two weeks later induced by both mainstream and social media. It comes across as fake deep, but it anticipates that criticism: the opening lines are “We’re fucking in a car, shooting heroin/Saying controversial things for the hell of it.” But no one who’d genuinely find those lyrics offensive is likely to hear them or publicly respond; the 1975’s 2014 video “Robbers” depicted Healy taking drugs, holding up a deli and getting shot, without causing outrage. The song works because of its detailed wide-screen production, full of synth-chimes, crowd noises and pizzicato strumming, not the lyrics or vocals.
Some of the best music being made in 2018 hops between genres knowing that such labels are artificial barriers, often enforced with sexist and racist overtones. Some of the worst music being made in 2018 hops between genres in a desire to reach as wide an audience as possible and winds up sounding like a monoculture’s flavorless mush. One of the most appealing things about A BRIEF INQUIRY INTO ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS is that it superficially resembles the latter but at best, comes closer to the former. The 1975 keep getting called a rock band, but they reject the label (which is very au courant) and whatever that means is up for grabs now. Their eclectic aesthetic is hip both in the mainstream and underground: the sleazy lounge vibe of “Mine” is slicker and less menacing than Dog Power, the latest signing to New Zealand’s legendary Flying Nun label, but it’s in the same universe.
They use guitars as a textural flavor instead of relying on them as their sound’s backbone. “Give Yourself A Try” nods to post-punk with a melody lifted from Joy Division’s “Disorder” but plays it on an instrument so distorted and sustained that I can’t tell whether or not it’s a synthesizer. The album hops from folk music (“Surrounded By Heads and Bodies” and “Be My Mistake”) to jazz (“Mine”) to mainstream pop (“It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” and “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME”) to a power ballad (“I Couldn’t Be More In Love”) and even dubstep (“How To Draw/Petrichor”), but even its most earworm-oriented songs avoid the tendency towards bombastic anthems plaguing mainstream rock bands these days, at least until the closer. The production was obviously done in an expensive studio rather than a laptop, but several songs drift off into glitch and noise without sounding genuinely edgy or experimental.
The band are skilled songwriters and capable of playing any genre they choose. Healy’s lyrics are clever in a tradition that’s actually closer to 10cc and Elvis Costello — and a general British spirit of dry, dark humor — than the artists he usually gets compared to. However, the album touches on technology, addiction and alienation without much depth. If there’s something powerful about its reflections on these subjects, it stems from the interactions of the vocals with the music. “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” couples lyrics about life on heroin with a cheerful, upbeat melody and production rather than the sadboy tone one might expect from Healy singing about “a 20-stone monkey I can’t beat.” But I can understand why people are thrilled to hear a potential hit song that’s full of scattershot attacks on Trump and whose chorus says “Modernity has failed us!”
Healy’s lyrics are self-aware in a particularly smirky way. On “Sincerity Is Scary,” he opens with “And irony is okay, I suppose, culture is to blame/
You try and mask your pain in the most postmodern way.” Later on, he addresses the fact that he might sound sexist. The song seems engaged in a debate that’s already quite dated and stepped out of a David Foster Wallace essay. But just when I was ready to write off the album as hopelessly glib, the next song, “I Like America & America Likes Me, ” addresses the fear of death in a way that sounds heartfelt and compelling. In interviews, Healy has revealed that he recently kicked a heroin habit. He’s also emphasized that he doesn’t want to glamorize the drug, and I don’t think he’s guilty of that. Still, a lot of the discourse around this album uses Healy’s addiction as a badge of authenticity and legitimacy as a “rock star” (which by this point is a concept that doesn’t have that much to do with music.) But I understand that it’s not something which can be left behind easily and that it would inevitably form the subject of some of his recent songs.
A BRIEF INQUIRY INTO ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS is about as good as music can get while remaining thoroughly middlebrow. A backlash is on the way: on a Facebook music discussion group to which I belong, almost all of the 42,000 members hate this album with a passion reflecting its softball treatment from the mainstream media. But while it’s definitely expressive and ambitious, it’s a pastiche of genres and styles lifted from more genuinely pioneering artists in a fundamentally safe way. We’re 180 degrees from punk’s year zero and very short list of acceptable influence. The 1975 look hip now because they draw from Bolton and Burial, Joel and Joy Division on the same album, ignoring pop/rock music’s equivalents of the art world’s notions about “high” and “low” culture. Funny that the lyrics criticize postmodernism — this is its epitome. (Maybe they’re closet Jordan Peterson fans.) They go beyond simple eclecticism to a very specific borrowing that might come across better if they sampled Oasis rather than writing songs that closely evoke “Champagne Supernova.” This album is neither masterpiece nor crap, but it’d go down easier if it didn’t feel like it was deliberately designed for promotion through think pieces– in which I’m obviously 100% complicit — more than radio play.
Thanks to Dave Taylor for his assistance with this review.