Two years ago, in May 2018, The 1975 had a change of heart. Their much-talked about third album – the one slated to be called Music For Cars, completing the trilogy of records beginning with their self-titled 2013 debut and – as frontman Matty Healy had long teased – possibly spelling the end of the band itself – was actually going to be two separate albums. The first, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, would be released in 2018. The second, Notes On A Conditional Form, would arrive the following May.
A Brief Inquiry…, released in November 2018, marked The 1975 out not just as the most important band of their generation, but as a band for the ages too. With excoriating state-of-the-world screams (“Love It If We Made It”), pleas for truth and connection in a post-post-ironic world (“Sincerity Is Scary”) and digital parables (“The Man Who Married A Robot/Love Theme”), here was an album that even the band’s harshest critics couldn’t find anything bad to say about.
But for the band, there was no time to sit back and enjoy the adulation – there was a tour starting, and another album to write and record. And what actually happened was this: another lifetime’s worth of experiences in the space of a couple of years. The 1975 put together a live spectacle that redefined the use of screen technology in a stage production, turning everything up to the max: max brightness, max contrast, max messaging.
Meanwhile, there were scrapes, adventures, awards, politics and plenty more besides. In February 2019, the band used their platform at The Brits to quote a feminist music writer speaking out on the myth of male creative genius. In May, they were run out of Alabama following a festival show in which Matty shared his thoughts on the state’s recently passed abortion ban. “The reason I’m so angry is because I don’t believe [the ban] is about the preservation of life, I believe it’s about controlling women,” he told the crowd. Three months later, they were bundled out of Dubai in similarly fraught circumstances after performing in front of a rainbow flag, telling the crowd “If you’re gay, I love you and God fucking loves you” and kissing a male fan in protest of UAE laws against homosexuality.
The first that fans heard of Notes On A Conditional Form was the latest version of The 1975, the signature instrumental piece that appears in a different form on each of their albums. This one, released in July 2019, was a stirring, proactive speech from teenage activist Greta Thunberg mandating fans to wake up to environmental disaster. “To have that voice and that sentiment on the record, I couldn't think of anybody more powerful,” says Matty. “I just think that she's brilliant.
And I wanted to help, in the small way that I can, by opening up my platform to her. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever felt truly starstruck.”
Aligning with Thunberg meant more to the band than an attention-grabbing ‘comeback’ single; it was a promise to a complete review of the way they function, committing to reduction of waste across their entire operation, from live performances to album packaging, the operations of their label, Dirty Hit, and their merch production – the band’s next wave of T-shirts were screen-printed onto old garments provided by the fans themselves, live on site at festivals.
The second new track arrived in August 2019, to coincide with a career milestone: their headlining set at Reading and Leeds festivals. Titled “People,” it was a screeching, searing, punk blast with a simple, direct message: “Stop fucking with the kids.”
The 1975 have continued releasing music in the run-up to the album release and each has been a complete shift, not just musically, ranging from UK garage to electronica to indie-pop, but lyrically and even image-wise: the anarcho-punks amid the chaos in the “People” video are the Blur-wannabe indie-pop kids in the “Me & You Together Song” video are the CGI avatars in the video for the dreamy “The Birthday Party.” The most recent, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” takes things back almost to the source of The 1975 – a John Hughes movie bop with glimmering electronic glisses and cavernous ‘80s chords, but paired with a modern tale of lust-via-webcam and a minimalist, monochrome video. Proof of The 1975’s ability to simultaneously explore the leftfield while delivering giant pop bangers, it’s resulted in the band’s highest chart position to date.
If those tracks hinted at something difficult to define, the album itself challenges the listener to reconsider not just what they know about The 1975, but what they know about bands and albums and pop music full stop. “Every time I do a 1975 record, I kind of just go through my catalogue of music, the mental rolodex,” says Matty. “And I think that Notes is an interesting record, because it has our most aggressive moments and our most tranquil moments and they're quite harshly lined up against each other. I don't have a playlist of one type of music, so I don't consume music like that, and when I'm inspired it'll never happen twice in one genre.”
Early in the process of making NOACF, Matty spoke about the album being all about the now – about art that reflects the world and the band at the point of creation. It’s a statement that’s borne out in the finished record, a 22-track monster that is as concerned with everyday ennui on the micro scale as it is with ecological disaster on the macro. The big issues Healy tackled on A Brief Inquiry are brought into focus by examining them in a personal way, like “Jesus Christ God Bless America 2005,” which looks at religion and the search for a God on an individual level.
Having detailed his rock star dreams, drug use, relationships, anxieties and afflictions across three albums, here Healy mercilessly deconstructs his own persona, removing the armour he’s worn but revealing a stronger identity underneath. And at its conclusion, the album returns to the most important thing: the bosom of the band. “Guys,” the closing track, is a sweet, sincere ode to
the unit that makes everything possible, the four old friends who’ve found consistency while everything around them changes on an almost daily basis. The 1975 – Healy plus co-songwriter George Daniel, bassist Ross MacDonald and guitarist Adam Hann – formed 17 years ago aschildhood friends united by the same dream, and have grown ever closer across countless tours, bonded by experiences as the dream became a reality.
On NOACF, the band’s family has grown to encompass new collaborators too, including actor Timothy Healy, Matty’s father. “Don’t Worry” was written by Healy senior when Matty was 11, and was dusted down and recorded by the band for NOACF. Elsewhere, FKA twigs and Phoebe Bridgers lend their vocals as backing textures and a duet from the latter. “It became such a personal record that there were no rules any more,” says Matty. “Anybody who had breached the intimacy of the studio was inherently part of the record already. With Phoebe, I just felt like I hadn't loved a female vocal like hers in like a decade – I was obsessed with her record.”
You can actually feel that sense of there being no rules on NOACF as you listen – and of there being no desire to hide behind a mask anymore. “There's no procrastination in regards to whether I want to go to a certain place,” says Matty. “I'm either talking about the things that make me uncomfortable or the things that make me laugh, or I'm talking about the things that terrify me. I'm asking questions about those things. And I think that it has a lot of heart because it’s a tribute to where we came from, musically and personally, so a lot of the stuff is homely and personable.”
Over the course of four albums, The 1975 have achieved pretty much everything they set out to do, be it festival headline slots, albums that impact on fans’ lives or coming good on their promise to be the band that defined the 2010s – because who else could really claim to have tried? This album was supposed to come out while the band were on tour and be integrated into an ever-changing performance. What happened was that life and ambition got in the way, then mother nature played the pandemic trump card.
So what can we say about this new album, a record like nothing else you’ve ever heard, from a band in their prime, who dare to be different, to say the important things, do the right thing and who surprise fans but never let them down? What can we say about the end of the Music For Cars era, a period that changed the lives not just of the band but of countless thousands of devoted fans? Probably this: things just got a bit too vibey.