Monday, September 2, 2013

album review: 'the 1975' by the 1975

Let me quickly clarify something that's been annoying me back from the review of Deerhunter's Monomania, specifically in reference to vocals. For those of you who haven't taken a look at that review, I mentioned that one of my big pet peeves is that I tend to find it seriously annoying when artists bury the vocals behind production or vocal effects. To me, unless it is specifically done in order to enhance elements of the song, it comes across as a way to hide the lyrics from deeper examination and get on my nerves.

But what happens when you get a lead singer whose vocals aren't buried, but just hard to figure out because of his delivery? Well, as I mentioned in that review, I tend to be significantly more forgiving towards them. Now, of course I have my limits, but in terms of, say, growling or screamed vocals that you typically find in metal, I tend to be accommodating, both due to the fact that said delivery is typical of the genre and it can be reasonably easy to parse out once you're familiar with it. Or for another example, take Dexy's Midnight Runners, well-known for the quintessential 80s classic 'Come On Eileen' - lead singer Kevin Rowland's voice might come across as unintelligible barbaric yelps on first listen, but once you've grown accustomed to his delivery, his lyrics are actually fairly easy to parse out (and good thing too, because Dexy's is one of those bands that had a lot of interesting lyrics, to say nothing of just being awesome).

And it was of Dexy's Midnight Runners that I first thought about when I heard the opening single from new Manchester-based indie rock act The 1975, 'Chocolate'. Not only was it catchy as hell, but the vocals clearly sounded like they'd require some additional listens to fully parse out. And while I tend to go a little easy on debut albums, particularly when they're from indie bands that might not get another chance if they don't open well, I immediately thought the sound of 'Chocolate' was good enough that they might be able to impress without the benefit of lower standards.

So with that in mind, what do I think of The 1975's debut, self-titled album?

Well, it's pretty damn great, and for the most part, I think it achieves its goals. However, I have the sneaking suspicion that it could have been a whole lot better, although it's going to be difficult to completely articulate why. Hold on, folks, we're going to go deep for this one. But for those of you who are looking for the short review, here it is: if you liked their single 'Chocolate', you're going to like this album, because there's a lot more of the same on The 1975 (so much so that I think the song 'Pressure' sounds suspiciously like a b-side of 'Chocolate').

For once, I don't think I'm going to be breaking this album review into my typical chunks of 'instrumentation', 'production', 'delivery', 'songwriting', and 'theme', but instead take something of a more holistic approach, which I feel is necessary to get to the meat of why this album for the most part works, but just slightly misses the mark. I will say that Matthew Healy's idiosyncratic vocals do become easier to parse out the more you get into the album, and his peculiar delivery (somewhere between Kele Okereke of Bloc Party and a mid-80s new wave artist in the vein of Duran Duran) doesn't grate on the nerves that much.

Now frankly, every reviewer on the planet is going to immediately make the comparison of The 1975 with Duran Duran, because on the surface, it works surprisingly well. Both acts have a slick, classy sound driven by a tight groove, with The 1975 bringing in a rollicking bass line that's placed rather prominently in the mix and played well enough to justify it. Both make irresistibly catchy tunes that stick in the brain no matter how hard you try to get them out. Both sound very much of their time and genre, not so much innovating but refining the little elements that make them distinctive (although whoever chose to add saxophone to The 1975 deserves some credit, because it fits incredibly well). And both, despite some pretensions towards some depth, are really pop acts at their core.

Now as I've mentioned a number of times, there's absolutely no stigma with being a pop act, and to their credit, The 1975 have acknowledged this, claiming to draw inspiration from the new wave synthpop of the mid-80s and the power pop of the 70s, both clear influences that are immediately detectable in their instrumentation. If I were to add a criticism here, I wish more of the power pop energy and broader scope cropped up more in the production, which always seems a little tighter than it should on The 1975's more energetic tracks, but that's really a minor gripe. 

What need to be made clear, however, is that The 1975 are not a throwback act in the slightest. They have a distinctly modern sound, albeit tempered by a strong affection to the 1980s. Now some of you who took a look at my Franz Ferdinand review might raise speculative eyebrows, because I did say that the modern pop scene was much more reflective of the 1970s this year, not the 80s. And that's still true, but The 1975 (in clear defiance of their name), have opted to take the majority of their inspiration, particularly for their lyrics, from a distinctly 80s cultural institution: John Hughes films (which I'm going to assume all of you know: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, etc.).

Now, to be honest, this does make a certain amount of sense. After all, if The 1975 were looking to create a soundtrack of their formative years, it makes sense to draw upon the emotionally complex works of one of the most influential filmmakers for teenagers in the 1980s, and here's where I'd argue the Duran Duran comparison breaks down. The 1975, despite their wholehearted embrace of pop music, have a distinctly melancholic edge, which comes through in Healy's delivery. It's a little tired, a little world-weary, a little too smart for the room (which definitely comes through in the fairly densely composed songwriting), and it would fit the mood of a John Hughes film instantly.

But here's where my biggest problem is: despite the excellent instrumentation and perfect delivery that fits that imaginary John Hughes film, the lyrics don't quite have the same necessary subtleties. Oh, don't get me wrong, they're far from bad - Healy has a gift for the same rich poetry that characterized Vampire Weekend, another band attempting to capture the modern cultural zeitgeist (albeit significantly simplified, which I think is to the band's benefit). But while the delivery of the songs might suggest that element of melancholy that makes the songs feel richer and more meaningful, the lyrics don't quite rise to that level, sitting more on the surface of the brash 'forever young' teen anthem context that many people misinterpret John Hughes' films as celebrating. You get your songs about teenage romances, causing trouble late at night, drama, and while a few have some pretty imagery, you don't precisely get a lot of depth or deeper insight besides the occasional punchline (like in 'M.O.N.E.Y', where the presumed high-roller in the bar ends up sleeping in his car). And to be honest, it sometimes feels a little shallow.

But then again, that might be part of the point. If one could contextualize the pervading cultural attitudes of my generation right now, you could definitely make the argument that there's a certain inward-looking shallowness and self-absorption. TIME Magazine called us the 'Me Generation' and it's not as if they were far off (their mistake was placing all the blame on us rather than the previous generation that shaped that belief, but that's a subject for another time). And really, if we're looking for a good linkage point between our time and the 80s, shallow self-obsession is a consistent common element. And I'll say this, on the best tracks of the album ('Chocolate', 'Sex', 'Settle Down', 'Girls', and 'Menswear'), the band does manage to capture a fragment of that deeper subtext that informed John Hughes' material and made it so impacting and relatable, translating that shallow subject matter into something a little more resonant, perfectly nailing that tricky tone that filled Hughes' work. But for the rest of the album, they don't quite stick the landing, only providing text, not subtext, which does knock the album down a bit more for me (and perhaps the choice to fill the album with sixteen songs was a little too ambitious - a tighter focus would have helped here). 

But even with all of that, I dug the hell out of the self-titled debut of The 1975. This is a album with a very distinctive flavour of being of two very different times, able to fit both of them impressively well. It's a great album, showing some talented songwriting and a stridently catchy sound that would make them an ideal fit for the modern pop landscape. I want to see more from The 1975, and I get the pleasant feeling that I probably will.

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