The Lowdown: The 1975 are a band for our times. After the overstuffed sprawl of 2016’s I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It, a record that in spurts revealed Matt Healy’s immense talent as a songwriter, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships makes good on the band’s promise. The first of two planned records in a six-month period, the album is a chaotic, scattered document of modern society that manages tremendous insight into a life lived online that sidesteps condescension or generalization. With ambition being an understatement, the band combines melodramatic power ballads, glitchy Auto-Tune, jazz crooners, and stadium-sized Britpop in a way that feels like a pointed response to the algorithmic flattening of modern pop. With a willingness to fail, and they occasionally do so throughout, the 1975 approach moments of profundity that are rare for a rock band in 2018.
The Good: For all the uncertainty that pervades this album, the band have never sounded as accomplished in their approach, capturing the inherent chaos of our times with a deft hand. Whether it’s the frenzied stream-of-consciousness of “I Love America and America Loves Me”, which sounds like 22, A Million combined with trap beats, or the heartbreaking acoustic guitar on ballad “Be My Mistake”, where Healy chronicles infidelity and isolation, the band’s willingness to go all-in on whatever style they try works wonders. Songs like “Surrounded by Heads and Bodies” and “How to Draw/Petrichor” are loose compositions that play with structure in ways more inventive than the ambient interludes on their last album. On top of that, Healy’s writing has never been sharper, between the self-deprecating “Give Yourself a Try”, which encourages genuine improvement while acknowledging mistakes, and the swooning romanticism of “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not with You)”, a tragic love song about the lure of addiction that references Healy’s struggles with heroin without glorifying it or sounding like a PSA.
Then there’s the two peaks of “Love It If We Made It” and “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)”, two career highs that reveal The 1975’s true potential. The former shouldn’t work, a 2018 update of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, where Healy shouts out a frantic list of topical signifiers through a bullhorn, a juxtaposition of horrendous tragedies like the drowning of Syrian refugees with direct quotes of President Trump, mimicking the constant wave of a social media news feed where terrors sit side by side with the mundane in a clinical detachment. Healy doesn’t provide the solution to the constant struggles of our times but offers a resilient glimpse of hope. On the latter, the album’s closer, they reach Oasis-level heights on a go-for-broke anthem about suicidal thoughts that’s revealing, tragic, and optimistic all at once.
The Bad: What makes the album’s missteps so interesting is the band’s willingness to push boldly into new directions rather than rewriting their previous hits or sticking to a formula. “The Man Who Married a Robot” is a 2018 rework of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” right down to having the Siri-app read aloud the lyrics. The song tells the story of a man who spends his entire life online and occasionally finds something touching to say about modern loneliness but can’t escape its dorm-room poster faux-deep template. Another big swing is “Mine”, a tender jazz ballad about a fear of commitment that veers a little too closely to Michael Bublé and is upstaged by the rousing Michael Bolton-inspired ballad “I Couldn’t Be More in Love” that directly follows it. Apart from “Inside Your Mind”, where Healy retreads the familiar trope of fantasies of violence, his grand gestures make the album’s issues at least compelling.
The Verdict: A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships stretches the definition of what a rock album can be in 2018. Through empathy and a willingness to engage, Healy, a self-described “millennial who baby boomers like,” writes songs for a largely misunderstood generation without playing into the trap of lambasting an entire group of people. That their failures are so interesting attests to their ability to push forward, and though the album isn’t perfect, its best songs measure up against nearly everything else released this year, full of insightful messages that go deeper than Instagram captions. The 1975 don’t presume to have all the answers, but their sincerity and vulnerability make for a tremendous record that speaks to the state we live in. It’s their best work yet.
Essential Tracks: “Love It If We Made It”, “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not with You)”, and “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)”