The 1975’s Notes on a Conditional Form is an album that thanks you not to classify it. Long delayed, running at roughly 80 minutes and featuring cameos – including vintage dancehall MC Cutty Ranks, urging listeners to “mash up de place”, and Greta Thunberg inciting civil disobedience – it has been touted as the concluding episode of a sequence of albums, known collectively as “music for cars”.
As singer Matty Healy tells it, this fourth album by the 1975 was initially conceived as a nostalgic hymn to the British night-time of his youth, “the beauty of the M25” and “going to McDonald’s and listening to garage records in a haze in a Peugeot 206”. Later, he characterised Notes… as “emo”. Whether that meant the makeup and howling of the album’s most rabble-rousing track, People, or the more nuanced content further in, is a moot point. This set has room for both, and more besides, never quite settling on a unifying theme.
Having then already released no fewer than four of its 22 tracks, the band only finished tinkering with the album in February. Unsurprisingly, Notes on a Conditional Form sprawls. It starts political, but doesn’t maintain momentum. It ends up personal, with a mid-paced track called Guys in which Healy expresses his gratitude to his bandmates.
Passages of quite abstract beauty hand off to more radio-friendly tracks such as If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know), which finds room for celestial arpeggios, Van Halen guitars and a discussion of FaceTime sex; the 80s-fest concludes in a sax solo. Elsewhere, 90s tropes abound; Then Because She Goes finds the band gazing at their shoes.
But if anything distinguishes Notes on a Conditional Form from their back catalogue, it is the sense that the 1975 are mining the heritage of British urban music. The ticklish beats of two-step and UK garage recur on multiple tracks. It’s as though drummer, producer and Healy co-conspirator George Daniel is giving vent to his inner Jamie xx on tunes such as Frail State of Mind and Yeah I Know.
The former finds Healy behaving badly and then self-castigating – an abiding theme in 1975 songs. The latter is a harder-to-parse collage, which mixes environmental concern (“Live on Mars, fuck it up”) with more generalised unease. The distant echo of Cutty Ranks, meanwhile, features on Shiny Collarbone. Arguments around homage and cultural appropriation have rightfully simmered in the wider pop discourse; here, Daniel and Healy are just on the side of the angels, seeking to expand their palette and deploying those influences with enough precision to avoid the accusation of tokenism.
If music of black origin is one obvious identifier, the presence of guests is another. The 1975 don’t collaborate often; most of the external voices here are female. Not only does Thunberg starkly state that “all political movements in their present form have failed”, but US singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers lights up the folksy Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America, a non-binary love song. (“I’m in love with the girl next door,” she sings, as a fanfare of brass cheers in the distance.) Most significantly, FKA twigs drops by; she and Healy are now romantically entwined.
Don’t Worry, by contrast, was written by Healy’s actor father, Tim, and brings succour and – despite the layers of Auto-Tune - a blast of conventionality that reminds you how nimble, eclectic and nourishing his son’s group are.
In some ways, this sprawl is innate to the 1975. A sense of “too much, all the time” has always pervaded their songs. Healy plays with rock and boy band tropes and pings wildly between irony and sincerity. Here, he errs more towards the latter emotion, or at least a good facsimile of it.
Throwing everything at the listener – ambient passages, funk-pop – was first essayed on the 1975’s second album, I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful and So Unaware of It. On their last outing, 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, the 1975 tackled the iniquities of a constantly mediated life, succeeding in communicating the brio, sexting and dread of a generation whose virtuality was as real as their groins.
Here, uncertainty and anomie sing the loudest. Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied is the key track. “I don’t find what I’m looking for,” sings Healy, subtly updating U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For with nods to soul, gospel and hip-hop.
The overarching concept of Notes… – blasting tunes from car stereos, sitting with one’s feelings, pitch-shifting as many vocals as possible – doesn’t quite arc gracefully enough to cover all its disparate moods. Healy being clean might account for some of the change of pace; perhaps Notes is really just home to tunes that didn’t fit the previous brief.
The LP’s scattershot nature is no failure per se; it does mesh well with the longueurs of lockdown. But unlike A Brief Inquiry…, whose bangers just kept coming, Notes is less extroverted, more unstable; more conditional. This might, in the long run, be progress. Ultimately, though, A Brief Inquiry is a hard album to top, and Notes is, perhaps, the most disjointed and unclassifiable of the 1975’s works. It serves best, perhaps, as a long and intermittently lovely outro to that defining record.