The 1975’s third studio album, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, is one of the biggest critical darlings of 2018. The album has converted a fair amount of cynics and has already been labelled as this generation’s OK Computer, which is an extremely provocative comparison when you consider many a music nerd’s perception of Radiohead (and that album especially) in comparison to The 1975, as well as the fairly stark contrast between the albums’ respective sounds and lyrical styles.
The likening of A Brief Inquiry to Radiohead’s 1997 classic and the overwhelming hype surrounding the album both essentially stem from its thematic content. This is by far the band’s most conceptual release to date, as frontman Matt Healy tackles the plight of his and younger generations. As the album’s title would imply, the ways in which technology shapes modern living is perhaps the most central idea here, but Healy doesn’t skimp on other issues, as he sings about mental health, insecurity, addiction, romance, politics and mortality. At the heart of this album is the existential angst and questioning of self-worth and purpose that have been exacerbated by the incomprehensible times in which we live.
The non-patronising way in which Healy handles these topics is certainly commendable, and it’s very obvious that the singer is far from out of touch with his primarily late-teenage demographic. Unfortunately, A Brief Inquiry is more of a jumble of strong concepts than a cohesive, well-structured album, and the lack of logical progression between themes leaves many intriguing ideas feeling unfinished.
A clear example of this can be found towards the middle of the album. ‘The Man Who Married a Robot/Love Theme’ is possibly the most compelling piece of direct commentary on the entire album, being equal parts comical, miserable and unsettling, with the tragic ending of its narrative accentuated by a magical orchestral passage. Such a melancholic interlude deserves a follow-up track which matches its tone or addresses similar issues, but ‘Inside Your Mind’, which comes directly after, scratches neither of these itches, and instead opts for somewhat creepily expressed lyrics about trying to understand a partner’s thoughts. This may seem like a relatively minor issue, but it’s symptomatic of the album’s disjointed flow, which holds its observations back from being as hard-hitting or thought-provoking as they could be.
More to the point, the disjointed nature of the album is most evident in the fact that this is the band’s most stylistically inconsistent release yet. It’s unfortunate that this is an issue, as the band’s first album suffered from being too uniform, as did the latter half of their second album. The amount of genres covered on the album – post-punk, electropop, new wave and jazz, just to name a few – is admirable. However, any album covering this much musical ground runs the risk of having greatly contrasting song quality, and A Brief Inquiry, unfortunately, feels more scatterbrained than versatile.
The band were at their best on their previous album when they were offering big, fun, danceable bangers – songs like ‘The Sound’, ‘Love Me’, ‘UGH!’ and ‘She’s American’. Sadly, some of the more pop-oriented tracks on this album are far less entertaining than they should be. ‘Give Yourself a Try’ has a really genuine and important sentiment at its heart, as well as a moving vocal melody in its chorus, but is bogged down by brittle production and a guitar line which borders on irritating (more on the song here). Given how much of a mixed bag the song is, containing both amazing and obnoxious elements, it’s almost a perfect embodiment of the album.
It’s hard to appreciate the catchy chord progression and infectious pianos on ‘TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME’ given the stiff, awkward groove, surface level lyrics, and a severe lack of bass in the mix. The single elicited a degree of controversy upon release, given its prominent (and unnecessary) use of autotune. This effect appears at several points throughout the album, including on the 2016 Bon Iver-esque ‘I Like America & America Likes Me’, in which Healy’s vocals, when paired with the autotune and tedious refrain, are pretty grating. The instrumental is pleasant enough, though too monotonous to save the track.
There’s still plenty of joy to be found in some of the more pop-oriented tracks. The deconstruction of ironic culture on ‘Sincerity is Scary’ feels fresh and inventive, and is backed by a groovy instrumental topped with killer choir vocals. ‘Love It If We Made It’ is one of the band’s finest moments from a song-writing perspective. The constant tension-building and delayed resolution of the first verse make the hook feel even more rewarding and contagious than it already is when it first appears halfway through the song. Healy gives an insanely passionate performance as he makes direct references to Trump, Lil Peep and Alan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian refugee who was found dead on a Turkish beach. The song’s final verse is particularly stirring, with Matt near-screaming Trump’s infamous “I moved on her like a bitch!” quote before concluding with one of the most effective summations of the current political and social climate all year: “The war has been incited / And guess what, you’re all invited / And you’re famous.”
One of the most glaring weaknesses of The 1975’s previous work has been their ballads, which, more often than not, become uninteresting fairly quickly. Thankfully, there are numerous occasions on this album where the opposite is the case. ‘Mine’ is a surprisingly effective jazz standard with a gorgeous string section and a stunning trumpet solo from the late and great Roy Hargrove. Though ‘I Couldn’t Be More in Love’ borders on cheesy with a keyboard accompaniment that seems like it’s ripped straight from the slightly tackier side of the 80’s, it makes up for it with powerful harmonies and some heartfelt lyricism. The Britpop-inspired ‘I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)’ finishes the album off beautifully with a euphoric hook containing some heavenly-sounding instrumentation, as well as a stunning outro.
However, several of the particularly low-key songs on this album do very little to hold the listener’s interest (though they’re mercifully not all stuffed in at the end, unlike their last album). ‘Be My Mistake’ is a nauseatingly dime-a-dozen acoustic ballad that sounds like it could have come from any one of the countless number of Ed Sheeran idolisers who show up on TV singing competitions every week. The distinct lack of personality on the song really makes lines like “You do make me hard / But she makes me weak” even more insufferable. The glitchy, pitch-shifted vocals that appear throughout ‘Surrounded by Heads and Bodies’ do little to distract from the weak melodies and cloying guitars, while a song like ‘How to Draw/Petrichor’ just becomes wallpaper at a certain point.
There’s one song which is worth mentioning on its own, as it manages to encapsulate everything this album is trying to be. ‘It’s Not Living (If It’s Not with You)’ is a phenomenal new wave throwback which doesn’t suffer from the unnecessary production gimmicks the band often adds to these types of tracks, and is perhaps the best pop song of the year. Despite its ridiculously catchy hook and deceptively romantic tone, the lyrics tell a simple yet harrowing story of heroin addiction, which Healy spent several weeks in rehab last year to combat. Darkly genius lines like “If I choose then I lose” and “Distract my brain from the terrible news”, as well as the title itself, could all be additionally applied to the themes of over-dependence on social media and replacing intimacy with technology that run throughout the album. Guitarist Adam Hann’s main riff soars above ethereal synths in the chorus as Healy delivers one of the prettiest vocal melodies he’s ever written. It’s not just the clear standout of the album it’s the clear standout of the band’s entire discography.
So where does that leave A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships as a whole? Much like The 1975’s last two albums, the potential for greatness is so palpable here, but it continuously falls short. It’s certainly not as one-note as the band’s debut, and does far more to justify its length than their sophomore effort. While it’s definitely the band’s most mature and elaborate album – probably their best to date – there’s still a lot that leaves the listener unsatisfied, and the album’s ambition often surpasses its ability to deliver any consistency in the quality of its music and commentary. Similar to the social media landscape it analyses, the album is addictive, frustrating, fun, unpleasant, and everything in between.