Friday, December 7, 2018

album review: 'a brief inquiry into online relationships' by the 1975

You know, it's a common trope among movie critics that most sequences involving computer hacking tend to suck, because not only do most filmmakers not know anything about hacking in the real world, you're trying to add tension and gravitas to what is, for the most part, just people writing code and running scripts. And while I'm fairly certain other music critics have made a similar comparison, I want to drill into one particular point: I'm really goddamn sick of artists making songs and albums talking about social media. Yes, it can be a toxic waste dump of bad opinions, spam, stupidity and let's not forget the Nazis, but as a whole I still view social media as, if not a net positive, a powerful force in the modern age to be used for good or ill, and as a tool it doesn't make for good subject matter if the person beneath it isn't interesting or compelling. 

Granted, I'm also coming at this from a technical background and a higher-than-usual level of impulse control when I'm not making hot takes or livetweeting from the metal bar or karaoke, but I think my point stands in being able to shine a light upon a worldwide community with the possibility to give a megaphone to anyone - and like any other tool or mode of communication or entertainment, it has its limits and failings and the potential to bring out the worst in people. So while I'm not surprised artists like to target social media in their technological dystopia themes, I rarely see a level of realistic insight that doesn't feel short-sighted or hectoring or technophobic in a really crass way, especially when said acts are going to turn around and use said social media for promotion for their next project. And thus I think I can be forgiven for being skeptical of the newest album from The 1975, with the loaded title of A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships - not only did I hear whatever remaining rock element had been sanded away, I heard it was taking some thematic leaps into this territory. So in other words, I didn't have high expectations whatsoever, so what did we get with this?

So I'm not sure how to start this. I'm not going to echo the furious masturbation of some UK critics who are calling this the modern OK Computer - forget the complete tonal misfire that ignores the paranoia of Radiohead's album, the only thing comparable is some technological ideas and the ambition. I've heard other critics make a comparison to Oasis' Be Here Now, and while it's absolutely that much of an overblown and overhyped project that pales in comparison to the previous two albums, this project is way too earnest and has jettisoned too much of what worked on previous albums to fit that mold. No, what I kept falling back upon was that this was The 1975 trying to make their earnestly grand, 80s-synth-inflected version of Marianas Trench's Astoria from three years back... only that was the best album of 2015 and this is a mess that seems to come apart at the seams the more you think about it, not even close to bringing the hooks and dramatic swell that made Astoria work. So yeah, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationship is not a good album - whether it's a bad album, we'll see in a few minutes, but it is absolutely their weakest project to date and one that I'd even struggle to see the less diehard fans embracing.

And before we get any further, I want to note that I did my homework here: I read Matt Healy's increasingly incoherent brain-vomit passing off as interviews and while he's said some stupid things there - his comments on hip-hop deserve a mention at least - I'm only judging the content that we've got on display on the album. And while I'm on that subject, I'd struggle to call this album technophobic or backwards-looking, at least not as a whole. If anything, I get the impression that Matt Healy is catapulting himself and his band into territory that is trying to be embracing and empathetic of everyone going forward... to a point. And this is where we need to establish one very important point of framing: this is an album filtered through Matt Healy's overthought, self-aware but not exactly self-perceptive or self-critical point of view. And again, at first glimpse this isn't precisely a bad thing and the focus might even seem broad at the first few listens given some of the language choices, but it'll ultimately refocus back on his navel and any perspective that he can't quantify or understand is anathema... but that doesn't stop it from showing up on this album.

So why bring this up - hell, you could make the argument that with songs like 'Sincerity Is Scary' there's at least an attempt being made to break past the masks of artifice built online for something 'real'. And yet while that might have weight for those who hide inner demons behind a social media sheen, that's never really been true about Matt Healy's desire to overshare, good and bad, and if anything that framing only serves to place all of his thoughts in sharper focus... probably a lot more than they should be. And this is where we have to touch on the second major piece of this album: the production and its inspiration. Now like the last album it's a hodgepodge with no direct influence for its blurry mixture of synthpop, post-rock, mainstream pop, and more than ever drippy piano rock and smooth jazz, but the removal of slicker groove sections and giving the bass little to do while leaning heavily on shimmering major keys implies a more stately, earnest presentation. In short, this is an album that's looking to pitch irony to the side and go for broke - not particularly revolutionary for any millennial indie act, but I can get behind these emotions, and some of the retro flair for the 80s and 90s are indeed some of the best parts of this album. 'It's Not Living (If It's Not With You)' is probably the closest thing that could have wound up on their 2016 album and it's all the better for it, but I could get behind the mid-90s soul and R&B keyboards, chimes, and key change on 'I Couldn't Be More In Love', and I really wanted to embrace the blatant Britpop throwback of 'I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)' or the attempt to ape Brendon Urie's smooth jazz bachelor ennui on 'Mine'. Hell, when they strip everything back for brittle acoustics on 'Be My Mistake', it might be a simpler cut but it's easily one of the best.

But these are cuts that work on some level because the framing and tones of the production naturally compliment the emotional undercurrent in the music - The 1975 have always been at their best when they're achingly sincere and over their heads or slickly self-conscious, and if this album isn't going to try for the latter at all, the former can work... but this is where we have to talk about the vocal production and the heavy abuse of vocoders and autotune. Now there are artists who use it to accentuate their personality like Kesha and T-Pain used to, but that would demand Healy use his more wild natural timbre, and that just rarely happens in comparison with the last two albums... which means the result is an odd distancing effect when he's trying to sound more heartfelt. 'I Like America & America Likes Me' is the most jarring example - it's weird to preach against gun violence while you're drowning in filters to separate yourself from humanity - but the truth is that they keep slipping in with blaring loudness on songs like on 'How To Draw / Petrichor' and especially 'TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME' - I get that it's going for modern pop and the insubstantiality of modern, internet-driven relationship drama, but I get the impression the rampant lies, manipulation, and cheating would be toxic in any situation and trying to distance yourself from the humanity of it doesn't make it cute! And that's where we hit the next big issue: tone. When this album is trying to for earnest sincerity and providing it can get past the awful vocal production and lack of any coherent groove, it's a little alarming to note what might actually be getting said. 'Inside Your Mind' is a prime example: it's trying to be atmospheric and romantic with its buzzed out tremolo shredding and its piano foundation, but this is a song where Matt Healy wants to understand his partner's thoughts by breaking apart her skull - that's creepy in pretty much any context, and framing it as romantic and never tilting your hand is even worse! And this touches even the good songs here: let's put aside 'Mine' which isn't nearly as romantic as it thinks it is, and 'I Couldn't Be More In Love', which is really more about a relationship mid-burnout going for the Hail Mary than anything to last, and focus on 'It's Not Living (If It's Not About You)'. Yes, we all know it's the cutesy song Matt Healy could make having kicked heroin addiction, but I feel the same way about how the tone feels wrong on Ed Sheeran's 'The A-Team' - someone needs to sit both of these guys down with a copy of Alice In Chains' Dirt to drill in some reality and tonal consistency!

But you know what, maybe this is a British thing - they've got a weird brand of detachment from this stuff that might click with that audience better - but this is where we hit the warped underbelly of this album where the incoherent slips towards the asinine and the insulting. And of course this is where everyone brings up the skit 'The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme', but in truth the idea of this doesn't bother me - the 2013 movie Her touched on similar ideas with real sincerity... but it's impossible to discern whether there's even a joke on this piece. I mean, you'd think there was given the male robot voice reading it in a flat monotone and the word choices and the lonely death at the end, but the music frames it like a tragi-comic romance we should care about - and maybe I've spent too much time on Twitter, but I find it hard to find sympathy for your generic internet troll with the handle 'SnowflakeSmasher86'! It raises the question of who is extended sympathy on this project... which takes us to the clusterfuck of 'Love It If We Made It'. And I get the intention of the song: driven by social polarization to become the very worst of ourselves in a detached pseudo-death cult where it's all a blur of increasing meaninglessness, a modern society that's failed and yet Matt Healy sees hope... but why exactly extend a hand in sympathy to people who'll juxtapose the phrase 'liberal kitsch' with the protest of Colin Kaepernick. Healy might not call himself a nihilist but the juxtaposition of all of these fragments devoid of context - an approach he outright scolds on the confused attempt at an anthem on 'Give Yourself A Try' that can't decide what level of maturity it wants to lionize - by execution cultivates that nihilistic worldview, and it provides the impression he can understand the debauched framing, but can't step outside of it or even really understands the reality of those who have embraced it with real sincerity. And that lack of self-criticism makes his stabs at sincerity increasingly sour and clashing with the framing in an ugly way, from how the girl might call out his sexism which he'll condescendingly dismisses by saying she should be pulling him in on 'Sincerity Is Scary' to how nobody really engages with the idea of death online with 'I Always Want To Die (Sometimes)' - which in itself can't drill in deeper!

But as a whole... this album is frustrating as all hell, and that not even getting to the Oneohtrix Point Never glitch ripoff the band tries on 'Petrichor' or how so many of these synths and drums are blown out to clip the edge of the mix. It's an album that wants to take a sincere yearning look at modern relationships and social media, but either through autotuned distortion or songwriting that can't break away from the sardonic faux-cleverness and detachment, unable to truly engage with any point of view beyond his own, it splits the difference between being incoherent and insufferable. And when you factor in that any muddy themes were clearly placed above a desire to write pop songs with a well-structured hook or showcase a strong groove, and even when we do get them they're pale pastiches of eras long-divorced from the themes they're exploring, all on an album that's stretching to nearly an hour... yeah, this Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships could have afforded to be briefer, and with someone to tell the band to refine or think through their points. Light 5/10, only for the diehard fans, and a real disappointment all around. Check out their previous two albums if you're curious, and don't believe the hype, because if anything with this mirrors Be Here Now, it'll be how its ego and overwrought critical reception will fade on contact with time and reality.

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