The first thing to know about “Notes on a Conditional Form,” the fourth album by the British band the 1975, is that it’s 22 songs long. The second thing is that none of these songs sound much like one another. It’s the ultimate contemporary example of how the Beatles’ White Album has become a kind of shorthand for young rock bands that realize actually sounding like a rock band is the uncoolest possible move in 2020 — but sounding like a dozen different bands? With few of your multiple personalties too focused on guitar dynamics? That’s different. The 1975 is nothing if not hep to the idea that a moving target is both harder to hit and more conspicuous.
Take the first stretch of tunes, sequenced for maximum jarring juxtaposition. First out of the gate: a four-minute climate change speech by none other than Greta Thunberg, given ambient accompaniment by the group’s synth scientists. That bit of sociopolitical preening is clearly going to be a one-off… and a track you’re only going to ever listen to once. But the thrashy, punky, satirical protest song that follows, “People,” has plenty of repeat value. Surely there’ll be more on the album like that? Nope. The third and fifth numbers are lovely orchestral instrumentals … again, a style never to be repeated.
Eventually things start to lean just slightly more toward something you could almost consider a current signature sound, best described as EDM-adjacent pop. But will there also be a couple moments of finger-picky folk? Of course there will! And by no means should you be surprised when indie queen Phoebe Bridgers shows up for a duet about evangelical gay kids (“Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America”), or when Jamaican dancehall veteran Cutty Ranks takes over a club-friendly track in the final stretch (“Shiny Collarbone”).
Two easy takeaways from hearing a description of this self-conscious a level of eclecticism is that the band is just messing with us, or that it lacks focus. On the former charge, let’s render a judgment of not guilty — their music is too accomplished and satisfying to be brushed off as trolling — and on the latter, we might submit a mixed verdict, contingent on further evidence to be presented in a couple of years by album five. It’d be nice to get a more coherent sense of who skittish frontman Matthew Healy is — he’s sweet-voiced half the time, but going screamo or singing through depersonalizing filters just enough to remain elusive as a personality. Clearly he enjoys playing with his mostly but not entirely straight identity; “I’m sorry that I’m kinda queer,” he tells a woman he’s infatuated with in “Me & You Together Song,” as if sexuality is one more way to remain indefinable. Healy sings about really being an introvert, as he’s flirting; he brings out some tropes about the loneliness of the long-distance rock star, even as he seems to deflate them with self-effacing irreverence.
There’s another way to consider the 1975’s scattershot approach, though: as a sleight-of-hand distraction from how good they are at writing and performing the slightly weird pop songs that occur at regular enough intervals. If they gave you the current single, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know),” without all the surrounding kitchen-sink stuff, maybe you’d find it easier to object to the essential corniness of an ‘80s MTV pastiche that starts off with a guitar homage to “Everybody Wants to Rules the World” before veering into a pure Hall & Oates sax solo. (The lyrics about naked Internet dating identify it as thoroughly contemporary, at least.) “Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)” is white R&B so smooth — and, this time, modern — that it sounds more like Charlie Puth than rock Britannia. In the closing “Guys,” Healy allows himself an all-out tender love song… to his bandmates. It’s every bit as unpretentious a finale as the opening was portentous.
By putting us off-guard so many times earlier in the album, maybe Healy feels he’s earned the right to be mawkish, in the clinch. And maybe he’s also earned our willingness to put the whole 22-track affair on replay, give or take a mere half-dozen skips.
“Notes on a Conditional Form”
Producers: George Daniel, Michael Healy, Jonathan Gilmore. Songwriters: Daniel, Healy, Guendoline Rome Viray Gomez, Greta Thunberg, Tim Healy. Musicians: Healy, Daniel, Adam Hann, Ross McDonald. Additional vocals: Thunberg, Phoebe Bridgers, FKA Twigs, Tim Healy, Cutty Ranks.