The 1975 dare to be too much. Led by frontman and lyricist Matty Healy, the quartet has made its name on an unruly brand of abundance throughout this decade: musically, referentially, emotionally, all of it. Did healy pop pills, lick coke, and twirl and revolver before holding up a convenience store and getting shot in the torso-but ending up totally fine! -In the video for early hit "Robbers"? He did. Did they lavish the title I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it on their second album because it was the only thing grandly enough to match the record's fizzy mix of sunblast synths, plastic guitars and millennial neuroses? Of course. And they did preface their new LP, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, with a 24-page manifesto that includes manic scribbles, a picture of Healy petting a dog while on the toilet, and a technophobic survey of our contemporary clusterfuck of existence that concludes: "THE LEFT AND RIGHT GROW MORE APART BUT YOU CAN CLICK 'ADD TO CART.' "Yes, yes, and more yes. That infinity.
Such a riot of excess may cause the casual observer to think: Who the fuck do these guys think they are ?! This is reasonable. But it is also misguided. Because the 1975 are a thrillingly unreasonable band for unreasonable times. Healy is their generational mouthpiece-a guy who has never met a contradiction he could not fully inhabit, to an arresting effect.
The 29-year-old is a pop star who is both infatuated and embarrassed by a pop star. He will play his charismatic part on stage or in interviews and then immediately flog himself for doing so, as his incessant inner monologue does battle inside his skull. Five years ago, in an effort to calm his brain buzz, he turned to heroin, and then to rehab, and is now a former addict who is wary of glamorizing the rock'n'roll clips he's lived through. He is constantly online and constantly alarmed by what we do to our sense of self, our humanity. He hates Trump but he knows that talking about hating Trump is boring. He is the son of two British TV stars who, in his youth, was treated to regular family visits by the likes of Sting; he also once said, with a smile, that his "greatest fear" is "being a Sting." He's an atheist who believes in a thing called love.
All of these curiosities play spectacularly on A Brief Inquiry. The album is similar to its predecessor in its boundless sense of style, swerving from Afrobeats to the brushed-snare jazz balladry to one track that sounds like a trap remix of a Bon Iver ayahuasca trip. But while I like it when you sleep sometimes it could be a tick too clever and unwieldy, A Brief Inquiry, produced almost entirely by Healy and drummer George Daniel, is more purposeful. Take that Bon Iver-type freakout, "I Like America & America Likes Me," where Healy's voice is transformed into a smear of Auto-tuned slogans, an adbot on the fritz. But listen closely and his bionic spasms start sounding like the meter readings of a society that is moving too fast to process anything in a meaningful way. "I'm a liar?! / Will this help me lay down ?!" Healy yelps, too harried to stop for answers, too wired to take a nap. It's impossible to tell exactly where its actual voice ends and where the digitized effects take hold.
When it comes to 1975's more widescreen scope-filming in culture's cultures along with personal ones – the album hits a daunting apex with "Love It's Made It". It's the rare Anthem for Our Time that actually gets the job done: This thing holds the mirror up to our collective faces so close you can see your breath on it. As the gargantuan drums clear and the path before him, Healy mimics the endless scroll, where dead rappers and dead rappers all slide by on the same timeline. He recasts one of the year's most cursed tweets- "Thank you Kanye, very cool!"-Into one of the year's best lyrics, in turn laying bare Ye's current fallen status as nothing more than mere flotsam for the churning news cycle. Healy repeats the track's title for a vaguely optimistic hook, but his gasping delivery tells a different story. The song ends with staccato strings that recall a clock ruthlessly ticking down the seconds.
According to A Brief Inquiry, if there is any sort of solution to our modern apocalyptic situation, it involves stepping outside, risking a broken heart, and searching for connections beyond the screen. And yet, Healy is the first to acknowledge that this is harder than ever to do: The album's only marriage is presented as a cautionary tale, read by Siri, about a troll who falls in love with the internet. "The Man Who Married and Robot" acts as a sequel to "Fitter Happier," Radiohead's Doomsaying, robo-voiced nightmare from OK Computer. It sits atop a bed of treacly piano plinks, like a demented parody of a Facebook commercial that is desperately trying to get you to log on again. In the end, the troll dies. The internet does not.
The members of the 1975 began playing together in their teens as an emo band, and they are still interested in wringing out unadulterated feeling from everything they touch. This is the thread that grounds even their most dubious dabblings, and makes their dilettantism amount to more than a series of stunts. At first, with its glistening synths and languid tempo, "I Could not Be More in Love" seems like a pure '80s schmaltz, something that Michael Bolton could have cut between yacht rides. But instead of luxuriating in the musical ooze around him, Healy takes the slickness as a challenge and turns into his rawest performance on the entire album. Recorded the day before he entered rehab late last year, his vocals are frayed as he laments the end of a four-year relationship with the panic of a crashing pilot. When he howls, "What about these feelings I've got it? "It sounds elemental, and the refashioning of emo's core into something jarring and new.
The album is booked by a couple of songs that offer some hard-won comfort while nodding to the band's hometown of Manchester and the lives they once led there. "Give Yourself a Try" is all pinched guitars and static drums, and greet the fellow Mancunians Joy Division and their singer, Ian Curtis, who killed himself at 23. On the song, Healy looks back at what he's done, what could he have done better, and what he would do differently given the chance. He also mentions a 16-year-old 1975 fan who took her own life. "Will not you give yourself a try?" He asks sweetly, over and over.
A Brief Inquiry ends with "I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)," the most life-affirming 1975 song to date. Its familiar fist-pump theatrics bring to mind the Glastonbury-leveling power of another of Manchester's most imposing bands, Oasis. But this is more than a tribute. Healy takes the ambition and jubilance of a classic Oasis song and turns it inward, with words that acknowledge the mettle it takes to simply get through the day-words that could only come from him. "I'll refuse," he sings, resolute, before giving up one more plea: "If you can not survive; just try. "Life is him.