Review: A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships by The 1975

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Credit: The 1975 / Polydor Records

Axel Koch
Music Columnist

Ostensibly, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships functions the same way as The 1975’s first two studio albums. The curtain is lifted with a self-titled intro, in which the same lyrics that opened both The 1975 and I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it are given a sonic makeover, the idea being to reflect where the band is at artistically at any given point. In this case that means having Matty Healy mutilate a soft piano melody with heavily autotuned euphemisms for receiving oral sex, a vestige of the band’s Chocolate-era that seems oddly out of touch with their more mature new sound. The song does not, in the end, reflect where the band is at, thank God.

Following that, we have a neat array of singles which then transition into the more experimental middle section, comprised of horn solos, trap beats, and spoken word interludes. To finish it off, there are the de rigueur ballads full of lovesick/depressed lyrics ready to be turned into Instagram captions by emo teenagers (“The back of your head is at the front of my mind”; “I always wanna die, sometimes”).

A Brief Enquiry operates as a concept album – the concept being, well, an inquiry into online relationships, but also more generally a look at how, to quote Healy on the single Love It If We Made It, “modernity has failed us”. Basically Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish for the generation of Tumblr and Tide Pods. If that doesn’t sound pretentious enough, AIIOR is actually only the first part of an intended two-album “era” called Music for Cars, a vague title at any rate and an ill-fitting one for a band whose music works best for bedroom dancing, club dancing, sad dancing, or as of now, clumsy jazz dancing. Dancing in short, and not sitting still behind a steering wheel, for which I’d much rather pop The War on Drugs or Beach House into the CD player.

While that might all sound like a load of wank, I don’t think it’s giving the band too much credit to say that the concept album format actually works rather well here – better surely than it does for most bands without the precise compositional prowess of Pink Floyd or The Who. This is largely because the general idea is very much in keeping with what Healy has always been singing about – love, drugs, and existential malaise, paired with a self-aware sense of sarcasm. The grand majority of the songs on AIIOR could have slotted into either of The 1975’s previous LPs quite seamlessly, but this time around, the central theme stays prevalent, even during the poppiest cuts.

See TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME, a deliberately simple song about cheating that looks at the effect that social media can have on relationships (“She said that I should have liked it / I told her I only use it sometimes / Except when I need reminding / I’m petrified”). Sonically, the tune has an almost tropical-house-adjacent bounce to its simple, driving beat. Similarly, Inside Your Mind, featuring a gently distorted guitar chorus that echoes the synths of I like it when you sleep’s A Change of Heart, sees Healy romantically reminiscing about an ex and touching on the frequently painful practice of stalking them on social media: “I can show you the photographs of you getting on with life”. They do lay it on really thick with the Siri-narrated Fitter Happier rip-off The Man Who Married a Robot, which spells out the themes of the album in a painfully obvious allegory about an incel (“This is a story about a lonely, lonely man […] The internet, as you know, was his friend”), even if its beautiful outro saves the song from being a complete trainwreck.

But there’s another connecting tissue to all the songs on AIIOR that’s even more important: sincerity. Take Love It If We Made It: it’s essentially a We Didn’t Start the Fire-style novelty song in which Healy neutrally lists all kinds of things going tits-up in the world right now. It has the potential to be absolutely awful and its video, which does the same thing in visual form (intercutting footage of warzones and the murder of Eric Garner with “cool” neon shots of the band performing), certainly is; the key that holds it together, and that actually turns it into a brilliant song, is the chorus, in which Healy simply repeats the title over glittering synths. Would be nice if we could overcome all the violence and hatred in the world, he’s saying, and it’s hard not to agree with him. If you’re still not convinced by the song, just look at it this way: where else are you going to hear someone say “Poison me, daddy”, “Rest in peace Lil Peep”, and “Thank you Kanye, very cool” in the same song? Well, possibly on Yandhi actually, but that’s just speculation.

It works even better on It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You), the best thing The 1975 have done so far and probably also the best pop song of 2018, even if you might mistake it for the best pop song of 1985. A bright sing-along synth-pop explosion straight out of the John Hughes movie soundtrack songbook, it beats out even The Sound for the must unabashedly pop thing the band have done. Just like on UGH! on their previous album, Healy takes your stock love song clichés (“All I do is sit and think about you”) while actually addressing drugs – cocaine on UGH!, heroin here. But while all that did for the 2016 single was to give it a cheeky double meaning, “It’s Not Living” goes further than that, which is where its true impact comes from.

Healy recently revealed having spent time in rehab to combat his heroin addiction, and pretty soon into the song it becomes clear that he isn’t really talking about some ill-defined character named Danny but about himself, falling asleep during conversations and finding his veins collapsed. At the end of the second verse, after describing this “Danny” by means of hackneyed addict clichés à la talking about living in a simulation and blaming his addiction on pharmaceutical drug use, the singer catches himself out: “I know you think you’re sly but you need some imagination”. Even if Healy himself has actually beaten his addiction, the song itself ends on a despairing note, a stunning contrast to the jubilant music.

So as to make it clear, there’s even a song called Sincerity Is Scary. Over gorgeous trumpeting courtesy of the Grammy-winning bandleader Roy Hargrove, who died prematurely just weeks before the release of this album, Healy self-deprecatingly criticises his own and our society’s penchant for irony and sarcasm as defence mechanisms: “You try and mask your pain in the most postmodern way.” His writing gets overly turgid at the end of the first verse and he’s kind of stumbling over his own words as he’s singing, but the message in the chorus is simple, like in all great pop songs: “Why can’t we be friends when we are lovers?”

The track is one of several on ABIIOR to prominently feature new instrumentation for the band, and the reason why their adoption 0f Soundcloud rap on I Like America & America Likes Me or their attempt at writing a jazz standard with Mine don’t ring false is because the band’s reverence for these genres is palpable throughout. How to Draw / Petrichor retains a touch of the band’s earlier misguided arty affectations (mostly because there is simply no way you can title a song Petrichor without sounding like you’ve got your head up your arse) but its transition from ambient sleepy-time music to glitchy UK garage starts to make sense when you realise that the band are recreating the sounds they would associate with going to bed as children (“Growing up in the UK, if the radio was on past 7 o’clock, it was dance music. It’s the soundtrack to night-time”).

The gently strummed Be My Mistake feels like it could end up in sleazy folk pop territory – you know, your Ed Sheeran, James Bay, Calum Scott, etc. That it doesn’t, but is in fact closer to Elliott Smith or Nick Drake (with unmistakable Healy-isms in the style of “You do make me hard / But she makes me weak”), is due almost singlehandedly to the raw emotion in Healy’s voice as it nearly cracks during the chorus. The Bon-Iver-lite electronica of Surrounded by Heads and Bodies, in which Healy tenderly addresses a fellow addict he met in rehab, works much the same way, although its lack of a hook and positioning in the middle of several other slow songs at the tail end of the album would make it perhaps better suited as a bonus track.

Coming as it does at the very start of the album, the shamelessly Joy Division-cribbing Give Yourself a Try might be off-putting for some (I find it utterly lovely, and as someone who has the Unknown Pleasures cover art inked on their body I consider myself somewhat of an authority on the matter), but if you give the whole album a try (har), you’d have to be very cold-hearted not to be won over by the time I Couldn’t Be More in Love rolls around. Leaving behind any indie affectations, Healy croons about the end of a relationship over a soft-pop ballad that’s so 80’s that I’m half afraid it might resurrect Margaret Thatcher. You would think that peak cheesiness had been reached with that Duran Duran-aping guitar solo, but after that, the band in all earnest go for the key change, and they pull it off. “WHAT ABOUT THOSE FEELINGS I’VE GOT?” indeed.

It’s so gloriously ridiculous that, by this point, the only logical thing left to do is to go even bigger with the closer, I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes), a cinematic, lighters-up finale with an ultimately life-affirming message: “If you can’t survive; just try”. It’s over the top, it’s melodramatic, and it’s a fantastic way to end a fantastic album.