Review: Notes on a Conditional Form by The 1975
I love The 1975, they’re my favourite band, and I was eagerly awaiting Notes on a Conditional Form, the group’s fourth studio album release. If any mainstream band nowadays embodies the concept of cinematic music, it’s The 1975; with sweeping choruses and massive variation in production, they’re a group that continues to evolve and change. If A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, the band’s previous album and the first of the two in the Music For Cars era, proved anything, it’s that the band is able to evolve their sound while exploring a more conceptual path forward.
After an eight-month build up to the album, with seven (SEVEN) singles released from August 2019 to May 2020, and multiple delays later, Notes on a Conditional Form is finally here. I stayed awake until midnight to listen to the album, played it straight though, and I enjoyed the experience. So why do I feel so unsure about this album?
Before I really dive deep into the project, I need to say this: the songs, themselves, are generally good. Maybe not as stand-out as songs like She’s American, or Love It If We Made It, but the stylistic shifts this album takes throughout its sprawling 80 minute runtime generally pay off on their own. I loved a majority of the singles for the album; If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know) is one of my favourites from the group so far. While there were some outliers in the style, mainly at the beginning with People, a hard rock commentary on modern social activism, and Frail State of Mind, a glitchy electronic song about the anxieties of social interaction, the singles tended towards folksy-acoustic styles or pop-rock, lanes the group have steadily improved upon. They’re great, but after listening to the album, almost none of these styles really represent Notes well. The closest of all the singles to matching the general vibe of the album is Frail State of Mind, with its lowkey house-like production; yet, even saying that feels like it comes with a caveat. There’s not really a consistent vibe to this album.
I think it’s admirable that the group embarks on so many different stylistic ventures throughout the project, and while they mostly pay off on an individual level, they never coalesce into a satisfying musical structure. This album never comes together in a way that *feels* like an album, more of a “This is The 1975” collection playlist you would find on Spotify. Track-to-track, Notes jumps around from Rock to Country to Folk to Pop-Rock to House music to Reggaeton-inspired Rock. It’s a lot. That’s not to say the songs themselves aren’t great (Roadkill and Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy) standout as great songs that really benefit from the genres of choice), but when placed next to each other the whiplash is extreme on a first listen.
That brings me to one of my two major issues holding me back from loving this collection of songs as an album, and that’s sequencing. With twenty-two tracks, The 1975 needed to have the album flow in such a way as to continue to grow and build upon previous themes or aesthetics, and when the album is so varied in style there needed to be some sort of internal logic as to how the songs were structured.
Let’s take a look at the opening to the album: we have a wonderful spoken-word piece by Greta Thunberg replacing the traditional opening to the group’s albums, calling for civil disobedience before launching directly into the heavy People. At this moment, you think the album is going to keep building on this anger and themes of social unrest and modernity, but then it’s a hard left into an instrumental interlude, then Frail State of Mind, then another interlude that is essentially just an instrumental opening for The Birthday Party. We’re six tracks into the album, and we’ve had three real songs and two instrumental interludes and then a spoken word piece. Any momentum the album had immediately evaporates, and I’m not sure it ever really gets going. Post-If You’re Too Shy, the album is primarily lowkey acoustic songs, glitch-pop house songs, or instrumentals that go on for far too long.
When the album finishes out with Guys, an admittedly nice ballad about the band’s history, I was trying to find the climax to the sequencing. Where does the album’s narrative reach its highest point? The finish doesn’t hit the bombastic feeling of I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes), which broke from the style of A Brief Inquiry’s track listing to deliver a massive conclusion to the themes of the project. I can’t quite pinpoint anything remotely like that with Notes. I know that you might be wondering why I’m comparing the two albums so much, and that’s because the band themselves believe they are companion pieces to one another; the two form the Music For Cars era, and so I believe the comparisons are apt.
The other challenge to this album are the house/instrumental tracks, which pad out the runtime to such an absurd point I wasn’t sure why this album needed to be so lengthy. Long albums are not necessarily a bad thing, if they feel earned and structured in a way that makes it deserving of being such a long experience. The instrumental tracks on this album are pleasant enough to listen to on their own, but in the context of the album they begin to overstay their welcome; tracks like Having No Head are so long that by the five-minute mark of this six-minute track, I wanted it to be over. Immediately after, there’s the house-music tune What Should I Say, and then Bagsy Not in Net, which is total filler. While I appreciate the production on these tracks that opt for a chill alternative to the anthemic nature of songs like If You’re Too Shy, they take up so much space on the album and start to blend into one another that I wonder if maybe some of them should have been cut, or saved for a deluxe edition.
The 1975 feel as though they’re trapped between a rock and a hard place on the album. While they want to experiment with these electronic styles more, they know that they can’t really release songs like Shiny Collarbone or I Think There’s Something (You Should Know) as singles. However, because the singles generally sound nothing like a bulk of the album, Notes on a Conditional Form is left with a complete identity crisis as to what it is supposed to be.
What is this album? Is it a political call to arms as the opening would have you believe? Is it about life in the modern digital age? Is it an introspective project about love and identity? Is it an ambient album? I suppose it’s all of these things, but it never gels in a way that feels like The 1975 have fully examined these themes. These concepts end up coming across more as window dressing for a collection of tracks in styles that the group wanted to try out.
I’m left conflicted on this album, because when it works, it is fantastic. The callbacks to previous tracks by the group are excellent, and really show they’re thinking about the cohesion of their entire discography. Tracks like Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied and Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America are fantastic cuts that show the group building on previously-established styles they’ve dabbled in. For me, however, they get drowned out in the awkward sequencing and messy structure that is in place.
While the songs themselves are great and worthy additions to their catalogue, Notes on a Conditional Form sees The 1975 going for a maximalist approach that renders the album a mess of tones, sequencing, and length that makes listening to these tracks in the intended order underwhelming and disappointing after such a long roll-out. As a playlist, it’s a ton of fun with some great musical ideas. As an album, with themes and an aesthetic all its own, I think it’s the band’s weakest so far.
Favourite Tracks: If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know), Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy), Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied
Least Favourite Tracks: Shiny Collarbone, Bagsy Not In Net, Having No Head