1975, The - Notes On A Conditional Form (Clear Vinyl)

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Who even are the 1975? Are they the upstart purveyors of synthy dance-rock as on their 2013 self-titled debut, the über-polished adult-contemporary outfit of 2016's I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It, or the auto-tuned, post-modern meme deconstructors of 2018's A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships? All and neither is as good an answer as you're likely to come up with listening to 2020's sprawling Notes on a Conditional Form. Produced by lead singer Matthew Healy and drummer George Daniel, the album feels like a companion piece to A Brief Inquiry, with songs that shift styles wildly from track to track. Perhaps the most inspired moment on the album comes right away with "The 1975," an ever-evolving self-titled song that the group rework on each album. This time, the spare electronic production frames a spoken-word essay read by Swedish teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg, whose heartfelt call to action on climate change offers a moving introduction.

The tracks that follow are, simply put, eclectic. At times, almost frustratingly so. We get the ersatz industrial of "People" à la '90s U2. The dewy, near-acoustic folk ballad "The Birthday Party'' finds Healy in a poignant duet with Phoebe Bridgers. Then there's the straight-up shoegaze guitars of "Then Because She Goes," the digital electronica track "Frail State of Mind," the shimmery pop/rock of "Me & You Together Song" -- the list goes on. There are also a handful of instrumental tracks that break things up, drawing on a mix of Steve Reichian orchestral ambiance and '90s experimental electronica. Many of these songs are gorgeously crafted. "The Birthday Party" in particular spotlights Healy's ability to convey seemingly earnest and diaristically candid emotions. However, if we're talking about listening to all this in the specific context of an album and not as a random collection of otherwise disconnected tracks, it's hard to have what you'd call a cohesive listening experience. The frenetic moves from hyper-stylized '90s glam to rambling acoustic twang to avant-garde soundscape all start to feel a bit costumey. Like a game. Maybe it's a sort of postmodern, Brechtian art project, or maybe this wild genre-hopping just sounded like fun.

Of course, this kind of self-aware, implicitly obvious experimentation has been at the core of the band's identity since A Brief Inquiry. It's almost as if they're consciously trying to avoid getting pigeonholed. There's actually one song on the record (and only one) that sounds exactly like it could have appeared on the group's 2013 debut. The witty "If You're Too Shy (Let Me Know)" sparkles with '80s nostalgia and gratuitous sax solos. It also bears no resemblance to anything else on the album. Given how coy (to put it mildly) the band are when asked about their artistry, you can't help thinking they included the track with a mischievous underlying message that says, "Is this what you want? Stuff like we did on our first album?" If that meant the album was a bit more listenable front to back, the answer might be yes.

1 The 19754:55
2 People 2:38
3 The End (Music for Cars) 2:30
4 Frail State of Mind 3:53
5 Streaming 1:32
6 The Birthday Party 4:45
7 Yeah I Know 4:13
8 Then Because She Goes 2:07
9 Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America 4:24
10 Roadkill 2:55
11 Me & You Together Song 3:27
12 I Think There's Something You Should Know 4:00
13 Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied 3:38
14 Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy) 4:07
15 Shiny Collarbone 2:50
16 If You're Too Shy (Let Me Know) 5:19
17 Playing on My Mind 3:24
18 Having No Head 6:04
19 What Should I Say 4:06
20 Bagsy Not in Net 2:26
21 Don't Worry 2:48
22 Guys 4:29