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14 October 2022

Are the 1975 geniuses, or simply mediocre?

The band’s new album is full of their signature contradictions. It is uplifting and ironic; ultra-modern yet nostalgic. Take it as cynically or as sentimentally as you like.

By Emily Bootle

On “Part of the Band”, the lead single from the 1975’s new album, Being Funny in a Foreign Language, the lead singer Matty Healy asks the question that’s been on everyone’s lips since the band came to mainstream prominence in the mid-2010s. “Am I ironically woke?” he sings. “The butt of my joke? Or am I just some post-coke, average, skinny bloke calling his ego imagination?”  

Some of that is easy to answer: he’s certainly skinny, and – come on, let’s take him at his word just for a second – the butt of his own joke. “Post-coke”, too: Healy is a recovered addict, clean from heroin for four years, and entering a period of his life much steadier than what he has revealed in interviews to have been a turbulent decade in his twenties. Average? Hardly – the 1975 are an award-winning, stadium sell-out group with millions of dedicated global fans. Though their synthy, bubble-bath pop has been dismissed as “meandering”, “pretentious”, “self-involved” and many similar adjectives, they have indisputably tapped into something – a feeling or a mood – in a way that’s difficult to pinpoint.

As far as I can tell this is not because they also happen to be “ironically woke”. The lead single from their last album, Notes on a Conditional Form, features a modified version of the environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s “our house is on fire” speech, over reflective piano. Here, on the opening track (it’s a tradition that the first song on each 1975 record is called “The 1975”), Healy sings, eyes rolling: “It’s cynical/This Adderall/And vitriol/And young people drinking Aperol”. He continues in the vein of some AI software built to churn out 1975-style lyrics: “I can’t sleep cos the American Dream has been buying up all of my self-esteem whilst/QAnon created a legitimate scene but it was just some bloke in the Philippines”. OK, maybe “ironic” would be a bit generous: let’s go with slightly pained, definitely nonsensical, and perhaps “post-woke”, which Healy can have for free, for rhyming purposes.

Yet as much as the 1975’s lyrics sum up the absolute state of everything, their music is relentlessly uplifting and frequently euphoric. After a slightly unexpected opening of dissonant piano and a vocal reminiscent of the plaid-shirt aficionado Bon Iver – an artist worlds away, aesthetically, from Healy’s roguish skinny-tie sleaze – Being Funny in a Foreign Language is stylistically consistent with the band’s previous output. This is a kind way of saying it all sounds pretty much the same: here are the familiar glitterball choruses with major chords thick with strings, saxophones and synths. On “Looking For Somebody (to Love)”, Healy turns his attention to a “supreme gentleman” – the nickname for the so-called incel Elliot Rodger who murdered six people in 2014 – with “a gun in his hand”. It’s an upbeat, catchy song structured around its titular refrain that could be perceived as a touch jaunty for the topic of mass shootings, but you do get the sense that the 1975’s swells of electro-optimism are well-intended: they see the humanity in everybody, even people who go on misogynistic killing sprees. (Before we get really worried, though, Healy concedes: “Maybe it’s all just fucked”.)

There are staccato strings and a country vocal reminiscent of the American pop band Haim on “Part of the Band”; “Wintering” is surely odds-on for Christmas no 1 (“I just came for the stuffing/Not to argue about nothing”). But these exceptions aside, Being Funny in a Foreign Language is a characteristic blend of synths and romantic nostalgia: a Molly Ringwald movie with Elf Bars. The 1975’s sound is so Eighties that we can almost allow them the “ironic” badge just for being called the 1975 – yet it is somehow hyper-modern too, smoothed out to the most perfect royal icing consistency by the expert producer Jack Antonoff. Throughout, there is devotion (“Baby, I’ll do anything you want to”), desire (“She’s insatiable is what she is/Her body’s like modern art) and endless longing. If this record’s – and their back catalogue’s – incessant wash of prom-night, rainy-day, top-of-the-bus sound is the band’s drawback, it’s also their strength: by the end of the album, which slows to a steadier pace, we’re implanted firmly in 1975-land.

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And where exactly is that? It’s an Eighties school hall decked out in tinsel curtains as imagined by the bored, suburban TikTok generation. And yet it’s also a dingy green room littered with hair cream, menthol cigarettes and Tuborg cans. But that’s not the whole of it. Once again, the 1975 have produced a record at once infuriatingly mediocre and sparklingly addictive – full of soaring choruses that could be received as cynically or as sentimentally as you like. And that, for me, is their genius.

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[See also: The many myths of Kurt Cobain

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