The 1975

A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships

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Listening to the 1975's ambitious, often frustrating third full-length album, 2018's A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, it's clear that the Manchester outfit is not the same band that delivered their effusive 2013 debut. They sound somewhat more akin to the band that issued 2016's I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It. If that album found lead singer Matt Healy pushing the group's emo and post-punk influences ever pop-ward, embracing R&B and adult contemporary stylings, then A Brief Inquiry takes those changes even further. Some of these tracks, like "TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME" and "Give Yourself a Try," sound like they could be demo recordings -- quickly captured song ideas rife with tinny programmed drums, electric guitars pushed a little too hot into the mix, and Healy's angsty croon buried in a gelatin haze of Auto-Tune. Elsewhere, they achieve a more grounded sophistication, offering up the sweet '90s R&B groove of "Sincerity Is Scary" and the dewy, jazz trumpet-accented "Mine." That both of these tracks wouldn't sound out of place on a D'Angelo album is a kind of triumph. "It's Not a Living (If It's Not With You)" comes the closest the sparkling sound of their early hits and goes even further in recreating the sugary Stock, Aitken & Waterman sound of 1989. Similarly, the gut-wrencher "I Couldn't Be More in Love" is straight-up Phil Collins pastiche.

Much like their ubiquitous self-titled theme song that subtly evolves with each album, the 1975 are a band of the moment, synthetic pop mavericks unburdened by any parochial genre constraints and able to drape themselves in an array of digital musical skins. It might be more easily dismissed as a savvy commercialism if the band wasn't so passionately committed to the process. Healy, who battled his own demons during the album's gestation, including entering rehab for heroin addiction, seems to be a man both at odds and in tune with his age. The album vibrates with tweetable immediacy, packing in a reference to the death of rapper Lil Peep next to heartfelt condemnations of immigrant bashing and timely references to the Me Too movement -- and that's all just in "Love It If We Made It," a buoyantly earnest anthem that works as their own Internet-era version of Van Hagar's "Right Now," Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," and Phil Collins' "Another Day in Paradise." Healy would love it if society survived to the next millennium, but as he sings on the song's chorus, "modernity has failed us." Much like the Internet itself, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships works best in small doses, when you can catch any one song on its own terms. And despite the often bleak themes at play on the album, there's also a refreshing hopefulness on many of the tracks that speaks to Healy's own recovery and willingness to say yes to even the most frothy pop trend. However, taken as a whole, the album is often as disparate and difficult to wade through as the social-media landscape it hopes to comment on.

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