Thursday, March 3, 2016

album review: 'i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful and yet so unaware of it' by the 1975

There's been a thinkpiece making its rounds on a few music websites questioning the continued viability of the album review, or at least the written album review. Where it was once something that could influence audiences or artists or even drive sales, many major publications have seen in the rise of the internet consumers who care less about critics and more about being guided by their own taste, the democracy of public opinion. Now this is very much a mixed blessing: on the one hand it's seen the embrace and re-analysis of pop music, giving real critical consideration to what was usually derided... but you could also argue that unless the critic has a large enough following, it's not going to help the independent, weirder acts that used to rely on a review to break out. What's more concerning is that it's seen the lines between criticism and promotion blur, especially when sites and channels rely on hits to stay afloat, and it's also led me as a critic to reassess what my role as a critic can be. And in this case, it's twofold: operating as a filter to all the acts I hear throughout the year, especially in my recommendations; and providing as much in-depth analysis as I can to improve the quality of individual reviews. 

And yet no act has so divided traditional critics and the general public as The 1975, and I think I can explain why. When I covered their debut album in 2013, I was like many critics in identifying their blatant 80s influences and self-aware self-absorption that was balanced on the edge of emo - in other words, shallow, derivative, and kind of insufferable. And yet I was also like a lot of their diefans in not really caring all that much, or at least more able to relate, mostly because the group had a gift for gleaming, slightly offkilter riff-driven hooks, great basslines and saxophone, with a distinctive vocal delivery from Matthew Healy and lyrics that had a surprising amount of insight if you read between the lines. In other words, I thought their debut was a real slice of greatness, and while their social media shenanigans got a little tiresome - along with a title for the new album that stank of emo pretension - I figured what the hell and dove into The 1975's sophomore record, which from the hype and lead-off single was reportedly weirder and more colourful than their sleek debut. What did we get?

Well, it's certainly different, I can say that. And the more I've listened through this record, there's less of an indie rock parallel than to a straight pop rock record from last year: Astoria by Marianas Trench - the same penchant for earnest theatricality and lyrics that are too clever for their own damn good, extended instrumental interludes and plenty of overdubbed vocals, and an outright shift from the riffs to more of a synth-driven, 80s-inspired sound that still feels refreshingly modern - hell, I'd argue The 1975 are more forward-looking than Marianas Trench were in terms of their sound. Now let me make this very clear, there are more comparison points we'll be discussing a bit and this album is definitely not better than Astoria, but it's a record that shows the same sort of wild ambition I love to see in this genre, even if there are points where the excesses of that ambition definitely play against them.

So the best place to start here is the instrumentation and production, where there has definitely been a shift away from the jagged, riff-driven sound on their debut to something more rubbery and smooth, harkening more than ever to the new wave synthpop of the early-to-mid 80s... and yet across this album it doesn't really feel like a throwback. Sure there are songs like 'Love Me' which might as well have smashed David Bowie's 'Fame' and 'Fashion' together for mostly solid results, with the great saxophone cancelling out that wailing synth, but it's not indicative of the sound as a whole, which alternates between the hollow and wet retro-disco of 'UGH' and 'She's American' to the smoother, gleaming synths and liquid grooves of 'The Ballad of Me And My Brain' or 'Paris' or one of my personal favourites 'The Sound'. Hell, they even dip their toes into R&B and gospel with 'If I Believe You' or 'Somebody Else', but the biggest influence on this record is a genre you don't often see touch pop music: post-rock. The easiest comparison might be the most spacious of an Angels & Airwaves or Postal Service song like the title track, but there are multiple ambient-inspired interludes that are generally interesting enough to keep my attention like 'Please Be Naked'. And what's probably the most impressive is despite how varied the sound is, producer Mike Crossey manages to keep it cohesive - liquid and clean yet giving the wind-scorched guitars enough atmosphere to hold melody, with solid basslines and crisp percussion to hold everything together. As such, there are very few points where I find issues here: I wasn't wild about a few synth choices, like on the otherwise excellent 'A Change Of Heart' in the mid-range or the slightly off-key drone at the back of 'This Must Be My Dream' that thankfully is overshadowed by the majority of the mix and especially that sax, but my biggest issue comes in the vocal production. And for the most part, it's actually kept surprisingly cohesive and well-blended, but when you have the second half of the title track, those pitch-shifted samples added nothing. 

And none of that is counting the points where it feels like the filters slathered all over Matt Healy's voice are just unneeded - he's got some visceral presence and he can be pretty smooth when he needs to be, so I'm little baffled why they continued to pile them in. But this takes us to Matt Healy himself... and I dunno what it is, but he doesn't quite seem as distinctive behind the microphone as he did on their debut. I'm certain some of it is the production taking away the rougher edges, but I also think he downplays certain songs that could have used a little more manic energy, or maybe opted for that backing chorus a little more, because when it came in, it added a lot to these songs. And on a side note, I get why the album ended with two acoustic tracks and it's kind of amazing they don't feel more out of place than they are, but Healy is definitely not at his best playing willowy singer-songwriter, and the backing chorus on 'Nana' definitely didn't help the intimacy of the song.

But I've danced around the elephant in the room for too long: we need to talk about lyrics and themes, and why that Astoria comparison I made at the very beginning of this review is more relevant than it should be. Because I keep finding parallels: they're both seventeen tracks with multiple instrumental interludes and both have songs near the end of their respective albums about the sickness of a female relative and they both have the feel of coming off a particularly wild cocaine binge as they deal with bad breakups for the right reasons and kind of behave like self-destructive assholes about it, including low point moments at a hospital. Now The 1975 are considerably more detailed in their writing, as you'd expect, which helps push more of that veneer of cool and sophistication that serves to be punctured at multiple occasions... but at the same time, those details lead to songs that get kind of insufferable, and self-awareness can only take you so far. 'A Change Of Heart' is the moment where he realizes he has to dump this girl because she's shallow and it's for all the wrong reasons, but the passing mention of his own shallowness isn't quite enough to counterbalance how callow and brazen this track is in pointing out how replaceable she is. And while Healy is very much aware of his own hypocrisy in pointing out the shallowness of his partners that conceal the emptiness underneath - there are a fair few tracks where he knows he's just the same - but it hits a few sour notes that linger longer than I expected, the most notable coming on 'Somebody Else', where he is well aware that he doesn't love his ex and should be moving on, but it doesn't stop him for spending nearly six minutes wishing she wasn't with anyone else - dude, get over it! That's another point: this record is definitely not self-contained, and while that can occasionally work for the ambient pieces, I definitely think a tighter construction would have given this album more punch, especially when themes start repeating themselves. Now that's not saying this reflexive nihilism can't work - 'The Sound' is a great example where it does, highlighting just how similar he and his partner are; even if they can't stand each other, they might be perfect for each other. Of course, a lot of this is projection and a faux-self-deprecating feel that toes the line of insufferable - 'She's American' and 'Paris' are the biggest examples - and instability is not an excuse to be an asshole, and I wish this record had the maturity to call him on it more... which takes us to the ending. And this is where the Astoria comparison needs to be made: on that record, when confronted with the girl coming back into his life, frontman Josh Ramsey accepts that it wouldn't work, walks away, and paralleling the relationship with the audience, moves on to a new chapter. On this album, considering there has been much of the same mirror thrown up to the audience, it ends on an acoustic song about his mother's post-partum depression and her turn to drugs to escape it, like mother like son. Now this is a pretty good song, but thematically it's a significant problem, because not only does it show no growth or dramatic arc, it makes the 'shallow cool to cover the emptiness' themes lack impact, feeling more like a hollow justification with a load of implied mommy issues.

Because look, on some level this record is an outgrowth of the themes that started on The 1975's debut: it might be shallow, reckless, self-destructive cool, but goddamn it if there wasn't something beneath it that meant something bigger and made it worth it, even if you didn't know what it meant. This record, for as colourful as it can be, tries to dig within for some answer and paradoxically feels hollower and smaller as a result - which is a problem when the album meanders for longer than it should. And the really frustrating thing is that the album knows it's pretentious and spends half the time winking at the audience for getting it, but the clever show-off nature of the record can feel like a mask hiding something not that likable. And look, if you don't care about any of the deeper themes and are just looking for some slick, well-produced grooves and songs, you're going to get that, but for me it's a strong 7/10 and a recommendation, but I wouldn't really say I liked it more than the debut. Give it a listen, but to reference the title track, the girl who turns out the lights when she leaves is making the right choice, at least in my books.

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