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(HOT TAKE) Notes on a Conditional Form by the 1975, part 2

In the second instalment of a two part HOT TAKE (read part one here) on The 1975′s latest LP, Notes on a Conditional Form (Dirty Hit, 2020), Scott Morrison ponders the tricksterish art of writing about music, before riffing on the history of the album as form, questions around genre, nostalgia and a sense of the contemporary, not to mention that saxophone solo and why Stravinsky would love this album.

Dear Maria,

> How pleasant it feels to begin a review with a note to a friend.

> Shoutout/cc:/@FrankO’Hara – I always liked his idea to write a poem like it’s addressed to just one other person. It strikes me as interesting to begin a piece of criticism in the same way. So, this is the mode I will try to inhabit throughout.

> As I read your words, and pondered, and learned, I was caught in the twin state of delighting each time you hit upon something already identified in my own thoughts – some of which I will expand upon here - and equally delighted every time you wrote something I could or would not. Such is the joy of conversation.

> I suppose in this preamble between speakers, which keeps up the pretence of our characters conversing - which will, inevitably, lapse as the form of this review gives way to a longer, more oneiristic, probably, onanistic, possibly, enquiry into the album (an act impossible in real conversation, by the way, imagine, imagine someone actually speaking for this long, how boring and alienating that would be, and yet that is usually what criticism is). Anyway, before all that, to help set the scene, I should mention a few ‘real world’ details. All of which happened either online, of course, or in isolation, because that, as you mention, is the real world now, during the violent interlude of Covid-19.

> I was delighted – that word again, repetitions and patterns begin anew already – to be asked to write this review. Firstly, because, like you say, I am a fan of The 1975. But also, because I am a writer and I am a musician and I am trying just now to forge a new mode of writing about music, one that can be both analytical (technically, socially, historically) and expressive (personally, lyrically, emotionally). And, most of all because I have always been, at best, suspicious, and, at worst, dismissive, of album reviews.

> I wrote, in our Messenger chat, ‘I usually find music reviews unhelpful’, which makes me sound like a bit of a dick, really. But what I meant is, what I meant is.

> There’s a saying I think about a lot, as the aforementioned writer and musician who writes about music: ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ (Martin Mull, Frank Zappa, or Elvis Costello, or any of the other people that sharp quote is blurrily misattributed to.)

> Incidentally, I would love to see a dance about architecture. But sometimes I think the sentiment of the statement is true. Will writing about music always be missing the point? Will it, through words, ever really be able to get to the essentially wordless essence of music? But I am a writer. And I am a musician. And I like writing about music. (Incidentally, I like making music about writing less). Yet I do feel there is some truth to the saying, I guess. Twists and turns. Try again. Here is another way of saying what I am trying to say.

> Music reviews make me hate adjectives. And I love adjectives. But often commercial reviews – for dozens of reasons, many of them valid, most of them related to that capital prefix – become attempts to describe a sound, invariably an artist’s ‘new sound’, again related to that capital prefix. Often, the goal is to generate press, to entice people to listen – or not – and so feed the music industry and the market. And to describe these new sounds, adjectives are piled-up like car crashes. Trying to describe a sound at any great length is, I think, ultimately fated to fail. Adjectives, up to a point, can provide greater and ever-more strident clarity. But, after a certain point – that appears very quickly in most pop reviews - saturation point is reached, and the clarity disappears, and we are left very far away from the music we were originally trying to pile word upon word to reach. ‘Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied’, you might say, if you were into foreshadowing. Which I am (obviously).

> So, I suppose, to continue thinking out loud (in silence, at my keyboard) I am interested in writing around music. Not describing the sounds (‘Let sounds be themselves’, says John Cage, whispering in my memory’s ear), but I am interested in writing that can tease out some of the ideas in and around the music and extend them in new directions. That, I think, is a different and interesting kind of dance worth attempting.

> We understand a review, then, as this kind of dance: as a record of the reviewer’s experience of listening to a record, which will accept that it will largely take as its subject the listening, and not the record. Even better if it’s a dialogue between two. So, here’s what I think about the album.


> Ok, before I talk about the album, actually, I would like to talk about a book. I hope that’s alright. There is no objective correlation between the album and the book except the proximity in time in which I experienced them. Let’s get that out of the way at the very beginning. The book has nothing to do with the album. But it does have something to do with how I heard it.

> The book is called An Experiment with Time. I mentioned this to you once already over Zoom. It was written in 1927. My copy belonged to my grandfather, in fact, and his writing – and so his pen and then his hand and then his whole vanished being – appeared occasionally at marginal or pivotal points throughout the text. That was part of what I liked about it, I guess.

> The book – which I allowed Wikipedia to tell me only after I had pushed my way through it – is regarded as an imaginative curiosity, but one which science has never taken seriously. That’s fine for me, because I am far more familiar, fluid and fluent in the language and implications of the imagination that I am of science.

> The book, broadly in two halves, sets out in its first strange span experiences of premonitions in dreams. That will give you the idea of the kind of science book it is. The second half is an attempt at a logical, philosophical, and occasionally mathematical explanation of Time that can account for these premonitory fissures.

> It posits that, in addition to the three dimensions of space (height, breadth and depth, I suppose), that time is a fourth dimension in our universe. I’ve heard that said, but I never really got it before. I do now, and it is very beautiful, because it begins to make me imagine, how, like a sculptor, I can ply, fold and shape with this new dimension. You can imagine how this might be useful to a musician, music being an art that can only exist through time.

> Anyway, the book then goes on to posit that a fourth dimension in which something can be observed to travel (our consciousness), must necessarily imply an observer in a fifth dimension to observe that travel, and then one in a sixth dimension, and so on, ad inifitum, infinite regress, serial time.

> I confess this somewhat surpassed the boundaries of my metaphysics (and/or silently slipped over my head), but the image of the infinite regress has stayed with me, the clickanddrag of old Windows windows ossified and pulled to leave twisting, spiralling trails; the gold-tipped rhythm of tenement window embrasures, repeating, far off, clickanddragged up a hill (hints and twists of Escher), on my daily walks.

> Wikipedia later told me that an infinite regress is a shaky ground on which to base a philosophical proof. Again, this is fine for me: I am a bad philosopher, because I am not competitive, and so this does not bother me very much.

> The infinite regress is a beautiful image, with lots of possibility in it for further imaginings, and it entrances me. So, keep this idea of serial observers and the limitless extension it implies close, please (foreshadowing again, you’re welcome).


> I will switch now, briefly, too briefly, from critic to fanboy (I contain multitudes, etc.).  

> Notes on a Conditional Form as an album title made me smile a smile that was very close to a wince or wink. Classic Matty, was probably the thought that came next. You have already summarised dastardly, dear, endearing, calamitous Matty, so I will move on assuming that, Matty Healy, yeah, I know.

> Back to the critic. The conditional form, in this review has already been (drumroll, eyeroll) music reviews themselves. See part one.

> Now I would like to take the album as the form in question – not this album, but albums generally, as this album is an exploration of the album form. The Album, capitalised.

> Albums have become normalised. But let’s play dumb for a moment – one of the cleverest things we can do - and we’ll see that albums are anything but inevitable, especially in the boundless age of streaming.

> Before this, albums used to be defined as collections with physical bounds. The capacity of a CD; before that, a length of magnetic tape; before that, the edge of a vinyl, a shellac, a wax cylinder. That about takes us back to the start of recorded audio media, I think.

> After Edison’s initial, waxy curiosities, albums began - like most things we love and hate - as a product. The form of the album was a circle. The music was a line. The edge of the line was the end of time. Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, as a fun aside. And, as another, did you know that there’s a funny B-plot in all of this to do with Beethoven. (It’s always to do with fucking Beethoven.) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony became the arbitrary marker for the desired length of the CD. It had never before been possible to fit the symphony onto a single, uninterrupted piece of media. And so, the B-plot goes, this is why the standard CD holds the amount of time that it does.

> Anyway, regardless of who shaped them, physical recorded media have, since their staggered births, profoundly shaped culture. Pop songs, especially singles, are still 3 and a half minutes long because that was the maximum amount of time that could be squeezed onto a 78, in the shellac days. Time was short and simple then, seemingly.

> Notes on a Conditional Form is 81 minutes long. It had 8 singles leading up to it, released over a span of ten months. Clearly, physical boundaries and marketing timelines, are not being treated in the usual way. You could just release singles forever now. But the fact this ended up as an album shows some belief in the concept beyond the physical and, yes, the commercial. Let’s press on, look elsewhere.

> Since we’ve started talking about classical music – ok, since I started talking about classical music – I’d like to dwell there for a moment, because there are foreshadows of The Album, conceptually speaking (and this album specifically) several layers up, several parenthesis ago, criticism as serial digression, in classical music.

> Collecting songs as albums was a favourite pastime of the Romantics, early emos. @FranzSchubert, @ClaraSchumann, @JohannesBrahms – there’s another B-plot in that trio if you want to look it up, by the way. Also, Clara Schumann is overlooked, like all female composers, because the classical music world is deeply patriarchal. It’s important to say that whenever we can.

> Anyway, the Romantics did not develop the album as a physical form – the only available recording medium at that time was sheet music, which they did sell in a big way, actually. But really, they helped develop the album as a conceptual form. They collected a group of shorter songs to make a larger statement – Schubert especially. In the 19th century, this was known as a song cycle, a lovely phrase, that makes me think of cycling through meadows, which I have done more than usual recently, as part of my state-sanctioned exercises, though the meadow was in fact an overgrown golf course, and no less lovely for it.

> Schubert’s Die Winterreise is a classic example of the song cycle – and another example of the emo-Romantic - a cycle of poems set to music that take the listener on a journey over time. Sound familiar? Albums. Song cycles. Song spokes. Meadows. Grasses and wildflowers. Meandering journeys.

> Anyway, here we finally return to Notes on a Conditional Form. Collecting songs together allows for an exploration of ideas that can evolve or expand over time – a Brief Inquiry, you might say. Art as a tool of investigation. Process. And this album certainly does that. You already touched on some of the ideas in the album: the climate crisis, the Anthropocene, digital communication, social unrest, calls to action, my favourite lyric on that theme, while we’re here:

Wake up, wake up, wake up, we are appalling
And we need to stop just watching shit in bed
And I know it sounds boring and we like things that are funny
But we need to get this in our fucking heads-

> You explore these ideas well so I will not pursue them more for now. Thank you!

> The other effect of collecting songs – or anything together – is that it gives birth to form. (Gasp, he said the title of the movie!)

> Yes, collecting things together as an album is what creates the form in all senses of the word – physical, commercial, conceptual. Form, pure form, is not the things, or the arrangement of the things, but the relationship between the arranged things. Glimpsing this is like getting a delicious glimpse of time as a fourth dimension. As I may have already let slip, I am very interested in time. And so, I am naturally interested in musical forms, which can only be apprehended through time, with time, thanks to time – thank you, time. We don’t often say that.


> This is where I will, at last - god, imagine I had been speaking at you this whole time - this is where I will at last get into the main topic of this review. The remarkable form of this album.

> Wait, sorry, one more thing before I do. A really quick one. As well as time, musical form also needs contrast. For sections to appear as distinct, and thus for us to clearly apprehend the difference between them, and thus get a glimpse of Form, they must contrast with one another, for how else would we apprehend change, notice borders, know we are somewhere else. (An interesting digression here is process music, which I love dearly, and which has an entirely different relationship with form. Look it up, if you like.)

> Anyway, for our purposes now, musical form requires contrast. This could be achieved in many ways: traditionally, it was done with different melodies or harmonies; but it could be done with volume, instrumentation, tempo, texture etc. etc.

> The main way that this album delineates its striking – and, to my mind, for what it’s worth, unique and new – form, how it creates its contrast, is using all of the above tricks, but, even more so, by contrasting styles/genres. This was immediately what struck me and thrilled me about this album, and it’s kind of funny – for me as the annoying writer, perhaps less so for you, the reader, I mean listener – that it’s taken me 2,534 words to mention it. This I think is the brilliance of this record. This is why we can call it not just contemporary, but new.

> The 1975 have always been shifting, but never like this. This album contains, sometimes literally right next to each other: punk, orchestral music, UK garage, Americana, shoegaze, folk, dancehall, 80s power ballads – and, of course, pop, whatever that means. Stravinsky became famous for sharp juxtapositions of distinct musical blocks. He would fucking love this.

> I messaged you, after my first listen, to say that the album reminded me of one of Sophia Coppola’s soundtracks. That was an instinctive, emotional response, but, having thought about it, I can now demonstrate the reason for the similarity. The stylistically varied end products are similar to one another because the methodology is similar: soundtracks select music practically to achieve emotional affects. Soundtrack albums use music as a tool to heighten ideas that lie elsewhere, in their case, in the filmed scenes they accompany. If you believe Matty Healy, this is also what The 1975 do. They use beauty, in whatever style or genre they find it:

Beauty is the sharpest tool that we have - if you want someone to pay attention, make it beautiful’.

> What do you make of that, @Keats? No, really, I would love to know.

> I think this is a remarkable musical strategy, that requires flexibility, knowledge and skill. That there is such a high level of all these things in the band is what allows it the strategy to be successful.

> I would like to pause here and consider the implications of this strategy on a personal, social and cultural level.


> Musical genre and personal identity have been as fused for as long as pop music has existed. This could be a trick of the market, or it could be a need of the individual psyche, or both. I think there is some truth in theory that in the increasingly widespread absence of God – by which I mean organised religion – people need to find both a guide for their metaphysics and morals, and a structure for their community, as these are some of the most effective tools we have discovered for constructing our Selves, making sense of our lives and the world. Art can provide the guide for many people. It also provides community. These communities, collections – albums? - of political, moral and aesthetic views, then become subcultures.

> Until very recently, subcultures were fixed. ‘Hardcore till I die’, ageing ravers, old punks. Interestingly one never really sees ageing emos. But that’s a subject for another essay.

> This, I think, is perhaps what is so striking here: musical genres are normally culminations (or roots, depending on how you look at it) of lived sub or counter cultures. These usually result from a fixed viewpoint about life and society, shared by the individuals that comprise them. The individuals identify with what the music says, how it is presented and how it looks as much – or perhaps even more - than how it sounds.

> Before now, it would have been shocking to imagine a band switching effortlessly from one style to another – this occasionally happens over the course of a career, between albums, but almost never in the same album itself - because it would feel like a betrayal, if we accept that bands and styles represent fixed ways of life and viewpoints and that neither lives nor viewpoints can change. Which, obviously they can. And which, obviously, they do, nowadays, with increasing speed, @Coronavirus.

> Matty’s appearance is a perfect demonstration of this. Minging Matty, Hearthrob Matty, Matty in vintage jeans, in a skirt, in a pinstripe suit. If we accept the old association of musical style/subculture and the clothing/uniform each produces, what would the ideal garb of a The 1975 listener be? A screen. A real, working search engine, fused with their body.

> Previously, the model was that bands had ‘influences’ which they ‘blended’ to create a ‘new’ sound. Here, The 1975 don’t really focus on blending sounds at the level of individual songs: the blend, boldly, happens at the level of the album. If the album is like a soundtrack, it is the soundtrack to the algorithmic age of effortless consumption of media.

> And I would like an examination of that idea to be the final track on this album. I mean, review. I mean conversation.


> The 1975 are inseparable from recorded media. Not just their own, but recorded media from the past. They are not able to invoke and inhabit this startling panoply of styles, to my knowledge, because they have studied in individual places or with masters of each craft or tradition – they are able to do it because they, like us, are able to consume recordings of these styles, and they, like us, have done so all their lives.

> When The 1975 invoke these styles, they are not evoking a tradition, or a way of doing things, or even seeing things. They are invoking personal memories of experiencing recordings, encountering media. We can take a look at a few examples of this.

> Let’s start with the classical stuff. The orchestral interludes do not sound like they are written by classical composers, or even composers of film soundtracks - the use of orchestration is different. It sounds, to my ear, like acoustic instruments playing what were originally MIDI parts. Which, I imagine, is what happened. That would usually be called bad orchestration. I am not interested in saying that. I am slightly interested in the effect of getting classical musicians, with their classical training, to play music written by people without classical training on a computer. What are the implications of writing for the flute as a soundfont, rather than a person, instrument or tradition?

> And what is the significance of placing an orchestra, playing instrumental compositions, on a pop record. These are not backing arrangements in an existing pop song, as we commonly encounter; nor are they classical arrangements of a pop song (see Hacienda Classical et al).

> These are standalone orchestral compositions on a record that also includes shoegaze, UK garage, two-step, Americana, punk. What, then, is the significance of this? The instruments, I believe, are being chosen less for their own sonic timbres, and more for their social or cultural timbres. I will try to explain this thought.

> Matty has often spoken about ‘Disneyfication’; he said he wanted ‘The Man Who Married a Robot / Love Theme’ on A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships to sound like a Disney movie. What does that mean? It means, I think, he wants it to sound like old movies, childhood, nostalgia. The orchestra is a sinecure for the ‘symphonic’, the cinematic, the dramatic; the orchestra is used like a banjo, which is, elsewhere on the album, used to conjure the exoticism of Americana as heard by someone listening to it in the UK, to paraphrase Matty’s words.  

> The stylistic references in the album are as much references to media as much as they are to music. Disney: orchestral sounds, likely filtered and wobbled through VHS cassettes. The orchestra, already made symbolic by its association with movies, made a double symbol, a reflection of a shadow, being invoked through the original sound not really for this sound but for our associations with it. The banjo invoked as both an instrument of yesteryear and over there. The music constructs frames of otherness to facilitate wistfulness, longing, memory.

> The chart success of ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’ is that it’s a modern bop that sounds like 80s bangers. Its artistic success is that it contrasts the feeling of halcyon safety created by its imitation of 80s bangers (experienced for millennials usually as triumphant climaxes in movies, jubilant moments on oldies stations), and rubs this up against some of the disturbing parts of the present: the angst of online relationships, nudity with people you don’t know and have not and may never meet. This is a simple but highly effective juxtaposition.

> ‘Bagsy Not In Net’ does this too: a quotidian, painful experience of childhood (not wanting to play in goal in a football game), expressed as a yearning and grand orchestral statement. This is true, too, of ‘Streaming’. This is pop music Pop Art: the contemporary quotidian expressed in the language of an old tradition and invested with the significance of an Art it simultaneously questions the power and validity of.

> And, to linger on ‘If You’re Too Shy’ for just a little longer, what is the meaning of a saxophone solo in pop music in 2020? It is symbolic: a shortcut, practically a meme. Saxophone solos exist in a present in contemporary jazz - they are a living history making new futures. But saxophone solos almost always only exist in pop music as ghosts (careless whispers) of the past. This particular sax solo is so euphoric to us less because of its musical content and more because of the emotions we have learned to associate with sax solos through other media.

> The final, most perfect example of this, of everything I have been getting at, really, is the UK garage references. These are themselves references to artists like The Streets, and Burial, who, themselves, were referencing the primary records of UK garage which they (The Streets and Burial) never experienced in clubs, but as recordings. And The 1975 experienced these recordings of recordings. Layers and layers of reference. And here, abruptly, we find ourselves back at the opening image of the infinite regress.

> At times, this album wants to express the present moment back at itself, and so prompt reflection and action. The fright of the zeitgeist. In this we can include Greta Thunberg, ‘People’, and the overtly socio-political statements on the album. I hope these tracks will be successful. In the future, they will take on the significance of historic artefacts: preserved truths from a vanished time, fixed and rich, like amber.

> But there are long swathes of the album, that do not have this intent, and which will, I believe, have a different longevity. These are the (often wordless) lyrical sections: the abstract, the vague, the instrumental sections – in all senses of the word. Records of the individual imagination listening to another individual imagination listening to another individual imagination. What will these tracks become in time, in Time?

> There is something ethereally delicious about the thought of people in the future coming across people in the past’s nostalgia of another past, now three links distant to their present, compoundly insubstantial, glittering, compelling. Fifth, sixth, seventh dimensions - serial nostalgias.

Notes on a Conditional Form is out now and available to order from Dirty Hit.


Text: Scott Morrison

Published: 26/6/20


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