(HOT TAKE) Notes on a Conditional Form by The 1975, part 1
In the first instalment of a two part dialogic HOT TAKE of The 1975′s latest album, Notes on a Conditional Form (Dirty Hit, 2020), Maria Sledmere writes to musician and critic Scott Morrison with meditations on the controversial motormouth and prince of sincerity that is Matty Healy, the poetics of wrongness, millennial digression and what it means to play and compose from the middle.
> So we have agreed to write something on The 1975’s fourth studio album, Notes on a Conditional Form (Dirty Hit/Polydor). I have been traipsing around the various necropoli of Glasgow on my state-sanctioned walks this week, listening to the long meandering 80-minute world of it, disentangling my headphones from the overgrown ferns, caught between the living and dead. Can you have a long world, a sprawling fantasia, when ‘the world’ feels increasingly shortened, small, boiled down to its ‘essentials’? Let’s go around the world in 80 minutes, the band seem to say, take this short-circuit to the infinite with me. I like that; I don’t even need a boat, just a half-arsed WiFi connection and a will to download. I’m really excited to be talking with you, writing you both about this; it’s an honour to connect our thoughts. I want writing right now to feel a bit like listening, so I write this listening. When my friend Katy slid into my DMs on a Monday morning with ‘omg the 1975 album starts with greta?????????’ and then ‘what on earth is the genre of this album ?!’ I just knew it had to happen, this writing-listening, because I was equally alarmed and charmed by the cognitive dissonance of that fall from Greta’s soft, yet urgent call to rebel (‘The 1975’), into ‘People’ with its parodic refrain of post-punk hedonism that would eat Fat White Family on a Dadaesque meal-deal platter ‘WELL, GIRLS, FOOD, GEAR [...] Yeah, woo, yeah, that’s right’. Scott, you and I went to see The 1975 play at the Hydro on the 1st of March, my last gig before lockdown. I’d been up all night drinking straight gin and doing cartwheels and crying on my friend’s carpet, and the sleeplessness made everything all the more lush and intense. Those slogans, the theatrical backdrops, the dancers, the lights, the travellator! Everything so EXTRA, what a JOURNEY. And well, it would be rude of me not to invite you to contribute to this conversation, as a thank you for the ticket but also because of your fortunate (and probably unusual) positioning as both a classically trained musician (with a fine-tuned listening ear) and fervent fan of the band (readers, Scott messaged me with pictures of pre-ordered vinyl to prove it).
> It seems impossible to begin this dialogue without first addressing the FRAUGHT and oft~problematic question of Matty Healy, the band’s frontman, variously described as ‘the enfant terrible of pop-rock’ and ‘outspoken avatar’ (Sam Sodomsky, Pitchfork), ‘enigmatic deity’ (Douglas Greenwood for i-D), ‘a charismatic thirty-one-year-old’ and ‘scrawny’, rock star ‘archetype’, not to mention ‘avatar of modern authenticity, wit, and flamboyance’ (Carrie Battan, The New Yorker). ‘Divisive motormouth or voice of a generation?’ asks Dorian Lynskey with (fair enough) somewhat tired provocation in The Guardian, as if you could have one without the other, these days. ‘There are’, writes Dan Stubbs for The NME, ‘as many Matty Healys here as there are musical styles’. So far, so postmodern, so elliptical, so everything/yeah/woo/whatever/that’s right. Come to think of it, it makes sense for The 1975 to draft in Greta Thunberg to read her climate speech over the opening eponymous track. Both Matty and Greta, for divergent yet somehow intersecting reasons, suffer the troublesome, universalising label of voice of a generation. Why not join forces to exploit this label, to put out a message? I’ve always thought of pop music as a kind of potential broadcast, a hypnotic, smooth space for desire’s traversal and recalibration. More on that later, maybe. What do you think?
> You can imagine Matty leaping out of a cryptic, post-internet Cocteau novelette (if not then straight onto James Cordon’s studio desk), emoji streaming from his fingertips like the lightning that Justine wields in Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia (2011); but the terrifying candour of the enfant terrible is also his propensity to wax lyrical on another (bear with my clickhole) YouTube interview about his thoughts on Situationism and the Snapchat generation. It feels relevant to mention cinema right now, if only in passing, because this album is full of cinematic moments: strings and swells worthy of Weyes Blood’s latest paean to the movies, but also a Disneyfication of sentiment clotted and packed between house tracks, ballads and rarefied indie hits. Nobody does the interlude quite like The 1975. Maybe more on that later, also.
> Where do I start though, how to really write about this, how to attain something like necessary distance in the space of a writing-listening? Matty Healy, I suppose, like SPAM’s celebrated authorial mascot, Tom McCarthy, poses the same problem of response: how to write about an artist whose own critical commentary is like an eloquent, overzealous and self-devouring, carnivorous vine of opinion?
> Now, let’s not turn this into a discussion about who wears pinstripes better (we can leave that to readers - these are total Notes from the Watercooler levels of quiche). There seems to be this obsession with pinning (excuse the pun) Matty down to a flat surface of multiples: a moodboard, avatar, placeholder for automatic cancellation. He’s the soft cork you wanna prod your anxieties through and call it identity, you wanna provoke into saying something bizarrely, painfully true about life ‘as it is now’. Healy himself quips self-referentially, ‘a millennial that babyboomers like’. I don’t really know where to start really, not even on Matty; my brain is all over the place and I can’t find a critical place to settle. I’m lost in the fog and the stripes, some stars also; I haven’t even washed my hair for a week. Funnily enough, in 2018 for SPAM’s #7 Prom Date issue I wrote a poem called ‘Just Messing Around’ where the speaker mentions ‘pinning my eye to the right side / of matt healy’s hair all shaved / & serene’ and you don’t really know if it’s the eye that’s shaved or the hair, but both I guess offer different kinds of vision. Every time I google the man, IRL Matty I mean, I am offered a candied proliferation of alluring headlines: ‘The 1975’s Matty Healy opens up on his beef with Imagine Dragons’, ‘The 1975’s Matty Healy savagely destroys Maroon 5 over plagiarism claims’. Perhaps the whole point is to define (or slay?) by negation. Hey, I’ll write another poem. The opening sentence comes from Matty’s recent Guardian interview.
I’m not an avocado, not everyone thinks I’m amazing. That’s why they call me the avocado, baby was a song released by Los Campesinos! in 2013, same year as the 1975’s debut. In the am I have been wanting to listen and Andy puts up a meme like ‘The 1975 names their albums stuff like “A Treatise on Epistemological Suffering” and then spends 2 hours singing about how hard it is to be 26’ and I reply being 26 IS epistemological suffering (isn’t that the affirmative dismissal contained in the title, ‘Yeah I Know’) I mean only yesterday I had to ask myself if it’s true you can wish on 11:11 or take zinc to improve your immune system or use an expired provisional license to buy alcohol like why are they even still asking I thought indie had died after that excruciating Hadouken! song called ‘Superstar’ which was all like You don’t like my scene / You don’t like my song / Well, if you Somewhere I’ve done something wrong it seems a delirious, 3-minute scold of the retro infinitude of scarf-wearing cunts with haircuts, and yeah sure kids dressed as emos rapping to rave is not the end of the world, per se, similarly I had to ask myself is there a life in academia is there a wage here or there, like the Talking Heads song And you may ask yourself, well How did I get here? Good thing I turn 27 next month Timothy Morton often uses the refrain, this is not my beautiful house this is not my beautiful wife to refer to those moments you find yourself caught in the irony loop and that’s dark ecology the closer you are the stranger it feels like slice me in half I’ll fall out with more questions you can plant in the soil like a stone or stoner, just one more drag of does it offend you, yeah? will I live and die in a band Matty sings the sweet green meat of my much-too-old -and-such-youthful experience of adding healthy fat to conference dialogue, like ‘Avocado, Baby’ was released on a record called No Blues I believe a large automobile is hurtling towards me now in negative space and the driver is crooning Elvis and reciting my funding conditions and everything feels like there aren’t not still people who believe the new culture of content is a space ‘over there’ and you can still have earnest power ballads about love if you want them =/ to cancel (too many tabs don’t make a tableau but in the future facebook has a paywall) and fame is a drag the pressure we put on the atmosphere, like somewhere you’re alive and still amazing asking wtf I’m reading this novel by Roberto Bolaño set partly in 1975 before we had internet it seems poets got laid a lot that year in Mexico City before I was born to pick up video calls with a spliff in one hand in the splendid, essential heat like a difficult knife in my side you can put me on toast, grind the pepper over me gently and say fucking hell this has taken forever.
> I guess I want or wanted to begin with this question of difficulty that rises when responding to Notes on a Conditional Form. How do you approach an album whose delayed release places it in a position of considerable hype, an album whose world tour and promotion is again delayed by global pandemic, an album shrouded in the ever-shifting controversy of Matty’s persona, an album whose length and sonic variety risks collapse into litanies of zany superlative and necrophilic attempts to revive musical category as vaguely relevant here? As beautiful as it is to catalogue the offbeat Pinegrove vibes of ‘Roadkill’, the shoegaze croons of ‘Then Because She Goes’ and the pop-punk, chord-bright euphoria of ‘Me & You Together Song’, I could keep going and going with this. I could just list and just list this. The album is a generous offering: a tribute to the album as form in an age where attention tapers away on high-streaming playlists set to conditioned, circadian moods curated by the likes of Spotify or Apple Music. The album is a Borgesian plenitude of multiple pathways, multiple timelines, infinite feed, choose your own adventure; a hypertext of cultural reference almost worthy of Manic Street Preachers at their Richey Edwards era of paranoid, intellectual peak; a metamodernist feat of oscillation between irony and sincerity, an extended tract, a drunk millennial ramble, a journey that loops from house party to club basement to the streams of sexuality repressed and expressed encounter...and yet. It is both more and less than these things. In trying to capture Notes on a Conditional Form with some pithy, journalist’s statement, I’m doing it all wrong.
> Sidenote: I recently listened to Rachel Zucker give a 2016 lecture on ‘The Poetics of Wrongness’ as part of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series. She makes a case for wrongness in poetry and critique, rejects the poem of pithy essence, the short, pretty and to the point lyric whose meaning is easily digested in a greetings card, or A Level exam paper, say. ‘Instead of the Fabergé egg of the short lyric, I prefer the aesthetics of intractability and exhausted exhaustedness’, the mistakes, lags or aporia made along the way in one of these long and winding poems. Notes on a Conditional Form is full of what some might deem mistakes, digression, exhaustion; but it is also peppered with the gloss of almost perfect pop ‘hits’ such as ‘Me & You Together Song’ and ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’. A wrong poem should be, ‘ashamed and irreverent’, which feels like a decent description of The 1975’s general orientation towards artistic conception. There is cringe and incongruity, there is by all intents and purposes ‘too much of it’, whatever we mean by ‘it’. And yet, that is its beautiful poetics of wrongness, the sound of wrongness, which ‘prefers the stairs’ to the easy elevator pitch (as Zucker puts it), that ‘prefers a half-finishing crumbling stairwell to nowhere’. I like to think about this 1975 album as a kind of exhausting Escherian scene of shifting, crumbling stairwells, shuffling and reassembling against the glistering backdrop of the internet’s inverse void, where everything, literally everything is translated to a starry excess of 1s and 0s, our collective binary data, the white hot, unreadable howl of our noise. What do you think Scott, would Matty find this image agreeable? Does that matter?
> Pushing dear Matty aside, say what you like, let’s start (again) with the title: Notes on a Conditional Form. Following 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, it’s fair to position these records as gestures towards philosophical statements ‘of the times’. Important to recognise the resistance to total or dominating knowledge built into the titles: these are not complete tracts or theses, but rather ‘a brief inquiry’ and ‘notes’. It’s obviously the ancient yet *hip* thing to do in capital-P Philosophy, to put out your statement on aesthetics and ethics, and I think The 1975 are playing with that tradition and its failure. You can imagine if his attention span were different, Matty Healy would’ve already written a PhD thesis on this stuff and published it as drunken bulletins on LiveJournal in 2007. As it stands, we have the smorgasbord sprawl of this eclectic record to get through in this cursèd year of 2020 — it’s not like we have much of anything better to do right now, when everything feels so futile, beyond reason and even the greatest human endeavour. Haha, woo, Yeah :’(((.
> Let’s stay in that conditional space between crying and laughter. Conditional form is interesting as a term, often used in grammar to refer to the ‘unreal past’ because it uses a past tense but does not actually refer to something that literally happened in the past: If I had texted him back, we would probably have gone to the gig that night. There’s something about the conditional as the ur-condition of the internet, the proliferating possibilities it offers and the hauntological strains of what could have been had we chosen x option over y, z, a, b, c, infinity...As millennials, we often make decisions by hedging, always caught in the conditional state of what it is to be. Hovering in the emotional shortcuts provided by dumb yellow icons, the poetics of abstraction. A verb form’s dalliance with uncertain reverb; and so we live our conditional lives.
> To push this further, we can say the internet is, as ever, Matty Healy’s natural habitat. In a recent podcast interview with Conor Oberst for The Face, Healy tells his favourite emo-country hero that ‘my natural environment by the time I started The 1975 was the fucking internet’. So how does that ecosystem play into the music? In a damning review for The Line of Best Fit, Claire Biddles concludes:
The 1975’s first three albums are ideal and distinct worlds to inhabit, each individually cohesive but situated in specific contexts — the anticipation of the small town, profundity in the face of vacuous fame, and the horror and isolation of late capitalism. Perhaps because of its broken genesis, Notes has no such common context, and ends up feeling flat, directionless and inessential, where its forebears felt vital, worthy of devoting a life to. For a band with proven dexterity in deftly capturing the nuances and quick changes of contemporary conversation, it is disheartening to witness them with nearly nothing of note to say.
That description — ‘flat, directionless and inessential’ — is kind of how I experience the internet right now, in the paradox of Web 2.0 becoming utterly essential, somehow, to how I live my life, how I love, how I am with friends. The internet as my ecosystem, my utility, my complete environment, my Imaginary — beyond the mere utility of a WiFi connection. Broken genesis might well describe the childhoods of those of us who grew up online, whose platforms collapsed around them, whose adolescent data was lost in the great ~accidental annihilation of the MySpace servers, whose identities were always already fractured, performed, anonymised or exquisitely personalised, deferred into only the (im)possible keystroke of utterance and trace, the fort-da play of MSN sign-ins. ‘My life is defined by a desire to be outward followed by a fear of being seen’, Matty says in a new short film for Apple Music, released in tandem with the album. The internet requires this chiaroscuro destiny: not to burn always with Baudelaire’s hard and gem-like flame (O to be an IRL flaneur beyond times of lockdown) but to endlessly flicker between the bright green light of presence and the shade of what once was called afk, away from keyboard. To live and burn in the gap between extroversion and introversion, to live in this conditional state of tendency. To express with emoji, send pics, is to both reveal and withhold something else, essential.
> I like albums to feel like worlds; I appreciate Biddles’ evocation of the cohesion experienced in the first three 1975 records. But perhaps it is a kind of violence to assume a world must have cohesion to exist. What is even meant by ‘common context’? What pressure are we putting on a singer, a band, a cultural moment to produce something familiar and harmonious, and to whom, at what scale? What does it mean to be the biggest band in the world...for a bit? How does that work when everything is dissonance, transience, noise, interference; both this and not-this; when life itself is lived as the flat traversal of a millioning existential terrains that seem to collapse into this nowness in which I feel myself sliding forever? Can anyone weigh-in on what it means to make music, art or writing that’s ‘worthy of devoting a life to’, because the gravity and force of that condition for good art, good pop, seduces me so.
> Maybe the point is to always be in the middle, to never quite start to write about The 1975, to find yourself always already writing about this album because this album was always already writing about your life. I have said nobody does the interlude quite like The 1975, but I was being coy, because the hottest twentieth-century philosophical double act, Deleuze and Guattari (haters gonna hate), do the interlude rather nicely. The point of a rhizome being ‘no beginning or end [...] always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo’ as they write in A Thousand Plateaus (1980). I see the musical interlude of a pop record, the instrumental moment without lyric, as a kind of middling gesture that places the listener in that conditional state of presence and absence, a hinge between songs, times and narrative moments. Maybe my favourite moment in A Thousand Plateaus is the statement: ‘RHIZOMATICS = POP ANALYSIS, even if the people have other things to do besides read it, even if the blocks of academic culture or pseudoscien-tificity in it are still too painful or ponderous’. Painful or ponderous might be a fair critique levelled at the enfant terrible vibes of Matty’s lyrics and generic pick’n’mix, but isn’t this tactic a kind of swerving punch at the categorical violence that keeps people out of academia, that keeps academic discourse so often stale in the first place? Unlike most journal articles, let’s face it, pop reaches ‘“the people”’. Perhaps Notes on a Conditional Form is the rhizomatic sprawl of the myriad we need as an alternative to institutional hierarchy, ring-fencing and the language games of academia. Surely the title is a reference to the very ‘pseudoscient-tificity’ D&G mention? I’m gonna quote Richard Scott’s blurb to Colin Herd’s 2019 poetry collection, You Name It here (not least because the indie publishers, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, come straight out of Manchester, home to The 1975, and because Herd’s poetic spirit is pure pop generosity with a platter of theory on the side), because I want to say similar things of this album: ‘Colin Herd’s poems are masterpieces of variousness. They are talismans against Macho demons. They are snatches of theory operating under lavish spills of language’. The good thing about Herd’s poetry and Matty Healy’s lyrics is that the impulse towards romantic or florid expression is always tapered by an interest in the mundane and everyday. Healy is always singing about pissing or buying clothes online or, as on ‘The Birthday Party’, singing about ‘a place I’ve been going’ that seems to consist of the lonely, infinite regress of conversations about seeing friends and watching someone drink kombucha while buying, in the convenient life of rhyme, Ed Ruscha prints.
Ed Ruscher, Cold Beer, Beautiful Girls (2009)
> So what kind of listening does this rhizomatic sprawl demand — does it expand beyond the banal or find a holding space there, a heaven of affect chilled to late-modernity’s crisp perfection? ‘The End (Music For Cars)’ is a luxurious, Hollywood ‘soaring’ moment, all strings and swells, fucking woodwind, and comes as the third track on the album, where normally you’d place it as some kind of penultimate climax, the album’s landscape pan-out or big swelling screen kiss in three-dimensional rotation. The band’s ‘Music For Cars’ era comprises their two most recent records, and you have to take it as a nod to Brian Eno’s 1978 ambient classic Ambient 1: Music for Airports (Matty recently interviewed Eno again for The Face, cool). The thing about cars is you drive around in them, you follow rules but also whims and desires, convictions; you choose to join others or you pursue the selfish acceleration (‘People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles’ goes the laconic teenage refrain in Bret Easton Ellis’ 1985 debut novel Less Than Zero). You only listen to music half-attentively; you don’t listen close enough to trade in souls. Are we being invited to experience this album as an ambient disruption of figure and ground, presence and absence, here and there, space and place, intimacy and despondency? Driving feels increasingly ‘directionless and inessential’ when the scale effects and obscenities of the anthropocene, of covid and other late-capitalist crises loom in our vision, when the sign systems we used to navigate our lives by seem to shimmer out of focus, or pixelate and deteriorate through endless memetic replication... You can’t help feel like Biddles review kind of misses the point.