As I sit here looking at a blank page, pondering about how I’m going to approach writing about The 1975’s gargantuan third album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, I turn to my dear friend procrastination and flick open Twitter on my iPhone. After a few minutes of scrolling through an endless timeline, disgusted and amused simultaneously, I had the belated (and probably way too obvious) realization that A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is an exploration of our codependency of the things – whether it’s drugs, sex, the internet – we use to temporarily numb the sting of loneliness.
Much has been written about The 1975’s leader Matty Healy decision to spend six weeks in a rehab facility in Barbados to fight his addiction to heroin – a stint that helped Healy reflect not only on his life, but the lives he was affecting. His decision to get clean came shortly after the band started writing A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, so unsurprising a lot of the lyrical content is derived from the recovering addict’s time spent in therapy.
Healy isn’t interested in glamorizing the bleak reality of living with a heroin addiction. In fact, the upbeat 80’s tinged “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is Healy’s recollection of his struggles to kick the habit – he’s hiding in plain sight about it, disguising it within the neon sheen of the song’s musicianship. And then there’s the subdued ballad “Surrounded By Heads And Bodies,” conjuring the spirit of In Rainbows as Healy recalls his time in rehab spent with a women named Angela – staying at a distance due to how personal these journeys are but also revealing that he sees “her in my sleep.”
But it’s when the personal and political collide that A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships really takes off. Released in late July, “Love It If We Made It” serves as the album’s de facto lead single. Interspersing his personal demons with the everyday terrors that headline the nightly news, “Love It If We Made It” is a pop music exorcism bursting with punk rock ethos. The track is the defining single of 2018, as Healy gives an impassioned vocal performance chronicling the world’s shared misery over bombastic industrial noise – it’s a foreboding warning and desperate hope wrapped into one (“Modernity has failed us/and I’d love it if we made it”).
Produced by Healy and drummer George Daniel, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is the most focused and dynamic The 1975 have ever been. Cinematic in scope, the record’s genre-hopping is limitless, effortlessly moving between different acts. There are plenty of breathtaking moments throughout the album, most notably the spastic “How To Draw / Petrichor” and the intoxicating slow jam R&B of “I Like America & America Likes Me,” with both tracks featuring Healy’s voice heavily filtered through autotune, operating as another instrument and channeling his inner Justin Vernon. But the real strength of A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is the realization that the instrumentation doesn’t necessarily have to be in the forefront to make the biggest impact, as the jittery energy on “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” or the intense slow burn of piano ballad “Inside Your Mind” prove. The 1975 are masters of controlling the room even when the music is sparse, utilizing any and every sound without being overbearing.
The crux of the record, however, appears a little more than the halfway point and doesn’t feature Healy at all. “The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme” is a foreboding account narrated by the male version of Siri. A modern twist on Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier,” the off-kilter piano plunks underscore the sad reality presented throughout its three and a half minutes. Initially jarring, it’s one of the most important facets of the record, as the final third of the record showcases the importance of trying to step outside that online codependency. Becoming untethered is easier said than done, but Healy attempts to do just that on a number of tracks. The airy neo-jazz of “Sincerity Is Scary” is a declaration against the antipathy of emotional expression, while the smooth Clapton-esque of “I Couldn’t Be More In Love” is an exploration of Healy’s feelings if or when people stop caring about his band. But it’s these moments amongst many that make Healy and The 1975 so endearing – the most self-assured rock star we’ve had in some time continues to be completely unafraid of sharing the most vulnerable, even embarrassing moments of his life.
“My favorite records are about life,” Healy told Beats 1 host Matt Wilkinson. “I like the all-encompassing aspect of life: you can have these bits, the sad bits, but don’t leave the dancing out, you know what I mean?” And it’s that life-affirming viewpoint that sparks the beginning and end of A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. “Give Yourself A Try” is a furious post-punk burst that encourages to listener to ignore the outside noise and appreciate that your existence is a unique one, while closer “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)” is a career-defining moment in the band’s discography, an immense encapsulation of the band’s past, present, and future. Lead guitarist Adam Hann creates resounding ambiance interweaving the best of Britpop with the dramatic flair that exemplifies The 1975, all while simmering strings swell underneath Healy’s angelic crooning. It’s the type of song that’ll be closing every 1975 show for the next decade, an instant classic if there ever was one.
The 1975 possesses a rare aura that translates seamlessly from record to stage, and these fifteen captivating tracks won’t be any different. If 2016’s I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it was a band changing the narrative surrounding them, then A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is The 1975 creating the narrative, releasing five singles during the album’s six month buildup, each one dominating conversation and continually building anticipation. The 1975 can still be interpreted as pretentious (they announced this record with a 20+ page manifesto for Christ’s sake), but they are so keenly self-aware of their surroundings that they walk a remarkable tightrope between pretension and endearment. And with such flawless execution, The 1975 have captured the zeitgeist of this particular era of popular music, as A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships will be seen as this decade’s defining record, cementing The 1975 as the most important band of our time. A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships can be dissected in many ways, and I think that’s the point of this whole experience. The complexities of life – especially one that lives online – can’t just be boiled down to one arbitrary thing and Healy isn’t naive enough to think that way. But his words offer hope to those who’ve been through hell or are currently going through the toughest instances of their lives. And for that, he offers a simple yet unflinching overture: “If you can’t survive, just try.”