There’s a clue buried somewhere in the clumsy, 16-word title of The 1975’s sophomore album, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It, that’s key to their new sound. It’s a clue that, despite the neon-soaked, art gallery minimalism of the album’s cover, signals the band is no longer preoccupied with being perceived as cool.
This is a welcome change of pace and perspective from The 1975’s self-titled debut, which at times felt less like an album and more like a press release screaming “Next Big Thing” at anybody who would listen. The fact that lots of people listened — The 1975 hit number one on the UK albums charts in its first week — is a testament to the band’s irresistible synthpop hooks and frontman Matthew Healy’s hypersexual, hedonistic lyrical purview. But despite its handful of great songs (one predictably called “Sex”, another a catchy paean to cannabis use), The 1975 ultimately came across as kind of hollow: A British Synthpop for Dummies guide that stops abruptly after the introduction.
In an interview with Australia’s Hit 30 last summer, Healy mused that a successful second album should be “a distillation of the first.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. A good second album should expand upon its predecessor, flying off in new directions rather than trying to recreate the same accidental chemical reactions, many of which will forever belong to a different time and place.
The good news is that Healy did not follow his own advice this time around. The band’s sonic palette has stretched out considerably in both directions, and the only overarching rule seems to be “excess.” Whereas before they seemed fairly one-dimensional, this version of The 1975 contains multitudes — unruly multitudes, sure, but ones that clash and contradict in interesting ways.
The album’s first proper track, “Love Me”, is both a celebration and an admonishment of narcissism, a superficial slice of dance pop that succumbs to everything it professes to scorn. The lead guitar riff rips off David Bowie’s “Fame” and the chorus mirrors The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing”, but both instances of plagiarism feel self-conscious and self-effacing. This is a song that wants desperately to be liked, and, strangely enough, it is sort of likable. Something in the track’s flamboyance shows a willingness to crash and burn, and it’s precisely those stakes that were missing on The 1975.
Follow-up “UGH!” is the spiritual successor to “Chocolate” in the sense that it’s also about getting high, but its fun, funkified chorus really has no precedent in The 1975’s catalog. The band’s musicianship seems finally to be catching up with their aspirations to be a dominant force in radio pop. They’re looking a bit further backward in history for inspiration, mining disco and ‘80s synthpop instead of just M83 and a touch of Bloc Party. Sometimes the results sound forced — “She’s American” is a little too indebted to HAIM’s “Forever” and New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” — but it’s better to force magic and fall short than to settle for the status quo.
One of the more striking developments on ILIWYSFYASBYSUOI is Healy’s evolved lyricism, which sets The 1975 apart more than anything they could hope to achieve sonically. Healy has always been more literary than he lets on — “The 1975” is a reference to a bit of writing he found in a book of Jack Kerouac’s poems — but this is the first chance he’s had to make allusions to his own texts. He does so liberally on the simple synth ballad “A Change Of Heart”, referencing everything from “Robbers” (“You used to have a face straight out of a magazine”) to the opening line of “Sex” (“This is how it starts”). It’s a song that’s ostensibly about growing up and out of a romantic relationship, but it also shows Healy coming to grips with his own legacy and discarding the bits he doesn’t much care for anymore. He even calls himself a “twat” for quoting Kerouac’s On the Road — a line that will probably ring true for any 26-year-old looking back and trying to honestly assess their high school years.
Healy’s lyrics and breathy delivery really should be the focus of The 1975, so it’s frustrating when the band’s ballooning aspirations force them into meandering instrumentals (“Please Be Naked”), meandering almost-instrumentals (the title track), and shoegazey interludes (“Lostmyhead”) that swell and recede but ultimately signify nothing. Plenty of other bands do this kind of thing, and they do it better. The 1975 is infinitely better off when they lean hard on Healy to hit home runs, as they do on the R&B-tinged “Paris” or the driving “Ballad of Me and My Brain”, in which the singer peppers his frantic, panicked search for self with a dose of sly cynicism (“Well I think I’ve gone mad/ Isn’t that so sad?”).
With 17 tracks — a handful of which pass the five-minute mark — ILIWYSFYASBYSUOI is nearly as long-winded as its title. This is an album that takes time and commitment to digest, and one can’t help but think there’s something self-conscious about that. The 1975 has a massive online presence, and the Internet these days is associated with nothing more than instant gratification. It’s a bold move, then, to make a sophomore album that moves along deliberately after its initial two-song outburst. There’s plenty of filler here, but at least it all works toward trying to inject some humanity back into the world of buzz-worthy pop music.
The 1975 have always had a thing for contradictions, presenting tales of youthful grittiness with the sheen of a SoHo gallery loft. But here, for the first time, they seem to be aware of those contradictions and intent on molding them into something special. So where do they go from here? Ironically, they could probably use a distillation at this point. Or maybe not. The messier this band gets, the more appealing they seem to become, even if it’s hard to jive with every single thing they throw against the wall.
Essential Tracks: “A Change of Heart”, “The Ballad of Me and My Brain”, and “The Sound”