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Review: The 1975 Melt Genres and Hearts on ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’

The UK band’s latest cuts through our social media malaise with some highly emotional songs and a sound that replicates the sonic placelessness of the streaming era

Maura Johnston Dec 05, 2018

The 1975. Photo: Magdalena Wosinska

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★★★½

Since storming out of the gates with their first EP six years ago, UK act the 1975 has thrown themselves into the sort of “biggest band in the world” chatter that defines the music press of their homeland. Their penchant for huge choruses and hyper-neurotic lyrics made tracks like “Chocolate” and “Love Me” leap out of radios; leader Matty Healy possesses the wiry energy of rock’s most beloved vocalists and the thinking-out-loud candor of the post-Livejournal generation.

But calling them a rock band would be a fool’s errand, and their third record, the spectacular, genre-melding A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, proves that even further. A sprawling, thoughtful LP that grapples with the big issues of our time in cheeky and mournful ways, it’s a poison-pen love letter to the interiority forced upon its audience by social media, piercing through the flatly punctuation-mark-free affect that dominates online chatter with brute-force musical curiosity and a well-placed gospel choir or two.

The scream-along “Love It If We Made It,” which repurposes nihilistic trending topics into hope for bonhomie amidst soul-deadening anomie, and the percolating “Give Yourself A Try,” a note to Healy’s younger self that speeds up and refracts The Strokes’ “Hard to Explain,” fall somewhere in the jittery, riff-heavy modern-rock ideal. But much of Inquiry takes on the trend of dourness that’s washed over pop these past few years and flips it into explorations of the self, propelled by a streaming-era knack for zig-zag-ing through genres in seconds—sophistipop fades into jazz fades into big-ticket MOR fades into Quiet Storm. Call it a brief inquiry into the state of the all-ballad playlist: “Surrounded By Heads and Bodies,” which places its spare poem about a rehab friend of Healy’s beneath a winking Infinite Jest reference, is a haze of bedroom-studio guitars and swirling synths; the pleading “I Couldn’t Be More In Love” glistens like a single tear falling down a cheek, Healy’s anguished vocal joining forces with a gospel choir over icy keyboards; and “Mine” mashes together brushed drums, static electricity, a solo by the late jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and Healy’s crushed-velvet delivery.

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“Sincerity Is Scary,” proclaims the title of one Inquiry standout among many, a shuffling rumination on the gaps between people that underscores Healy’s hoped-for leap into faith with a gospel choir. But on this stunning album, The 1975 take on that overwhelming anxiety with nerve and aplomb, and the result combines the fist-raising inspired by anthems with the gut-punch provided by precisely described longing.

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