Last November, the 1975 frontman Matt Healy took shots at Justin Bieber's "What Do You Mean." "'When you nod your head yes but you wanna say no'—can we stop talking about girls who don't know what they want?" he despaired. "Can we stop talking about nothingness? No one's asking you to inspire a revolution, but inspire something." Like some of his provocative Manchester forebears, Healy has a giant mouth on him, but unlike them, he doesn't seem interested in tearing others down, just demanding more. This neurotic want drives his music, which in turn inspires wildly conflicting feelings: fervent adoration on one end, intense rage at the other.
The ire directed at the 1975's very existence seems odd, considering their self-titled 2013 debut was basically inoffensive pop-rock pitched somewhere between Phoenix, the Strokes, and Jimmy Eat World. But there is something deeper at work in the objections, and Healy's rebuke of Bieber provides a hint: Although the group approaches their work with a level of ambition and self-seriousness usually reserved for rock bands like, say, Radiohead—The 1975 is 16 songs long, with three ambient interludes, including a glacial choral opener called "The 1975"—they have the look, feel, and requisite huge teen girl fanbase of a boy band.
Pure pop has been a cool palette for left-field artists to play around with for a few years now, but the boy band model has remained terminally uncool. Hurts are maybe as close as it's come; if PC Music really want to be transgressive, perhaps they should give it a shot. Even One Direction tried to escape the genre's sanitized connotations toward the end of their existence, when they were allowed to manifest a little authorship along with their stadium rock dreams. The 1975 don't wear matching suits or sell branded trinkets to the under-10s, yet after years of playing to nobody, they became a boy band by virtue of a voracious social media fanbase—not that they seemed happy about it at first. Once they realized the extent of their audience’s adulation—and indignation when they reshot the monochrome video for "Sex" in full color after signing to a major—they played around with them, pulling disappearing acts and refashioning their iconography.
Everything about I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it indicates that the 1975 have embraced girl love, color, and their boy band potential. Healy likes to talk about his band as a post-modern project that creates as people consume, but this ultimately isn't that radical when it comes to pop music, always the magpie. When you sleep... has a much more distinct and iconoclastic character than their slick debut, drawing from the effervescent, percolating polish of early '80s Hot 100 pop that they flirted with on "Heart Out." Single "Love Me," for instance, flagrantly splices Bowie's "Fame" and "Fashion." The resemblance to acts like Scritti Politti, INXS, the Police, and Hall and Oates also makes it feel like the X-rated cousin of Taylor Swift's 1989 and Carly Rae Jepsen's E•MO•TION—despite Healy's brash exterior, his primary mode is lovelorn and yearning.
That doesn't mean that When you sleep is consistent by any stretch. It's 75 minutes long, which could mostly be solved by trimming the four (!) lengthy ambient tracks on the record. It opens with a darker reworking of "The 1975" (!!) that evokes Sigur Rós; "Lostmyhead" sounds like M83; the title track Bon Iver and Everything Ecstatic-era Four Tet. Their stab at emulating Brian Eno's "The Big Ship" is pretty good, except that it is called "Please Be Naked" (!!!). But, man: when compared to the UK's current crop of milquetoast electro-balladeers, the 1975's unabashed pomp and seeming imperviousness to ridicule make you want to kiss them.
It helps, too, that When you sleep can be enormous fun. "She's American" is all slap-bass fizz and clenched-fist vocal delivery; "The Sound" is pumping, uber-camp piano house. Although their sound is clean-cut, Healy's lyrics are anything but: On the debut, Healy was coke-addled and fucked up, but When you sleep finds him trying to reform, a process hobbled by the circumstances of his new superstar life. Like a lot of When you sleep, his lyrics dip perilously from inspiring to embarrassing. For every neatly zeitgeist-capturing couplet like "I'm just with my friends online and there's things we'd like to change" from "Love Me," there's something like, "Caught up in fashion—Karcrashian panache and a bag of bash for passion" from the same song, which only makes Healy sound like the trustafarian street poet that he already slightly resembles.
"Love Me" is nothing, though, compared to its counterpart, "Loving Someone," which will vindicate anyone who decided to hate the 1975 on principle. Musically it's an outlier—it has the sweet, compressed insectlike burble of Baths or Bibio, and is the most synthetic thing here. Healy switches from singing to sort-of rapping, Lily Allen-style, in forensic, anguished detail about the superficial example that the world shows to young people. Steady yourself: "Charlatan telepathy exploiting insecurity and praying on the purity of grief and its simplicity/ But I know that maybe I'm too skeptical/ Even Guy Debord needed spectacles/ You see, I'm the Greek economy of cashing intellectual cheques and I'm trying to progress/ But instead of selling sex, I think I should be loving someone." It's like something Neil Tennant might have written if he had embraced the ludicrousness of mid-'80s pop instead of subverting it, and thank God he did.
Dropping Debord's "Society of the Spectacle" is a massive 'look at me!' clanger, but Healy substantiates the song's agonies with unvarnished accounts of how he's fallen prey to these pressures. He often sings about his mental health: "UGH!" is West Coast funk R&B lite about addiction, while "The Ballad of Me and My Brain" is pure stadium Sting in which he searches for his mind; he figures he might have left it in a supermarket, where it's "flirting with the girls." He searches for a higher power on "If I Believe You," a biblical, Michael Jackson-indebted slow jam gilded with a gospel choir. The closing lines are silly on paper—"if I'm lost, then how can I find myself?"—but buried in Autre Ne Veut-style ecclesiastical synth washes, his earnestness becomes surprisingly affecting.
In "Loving Someone," Healy asked who would "show the kids that they matter." It's a trite line, but unlike so much "be yrself" Hot 100 pop, the 1975 never coddles the listener; instead, they respect their audience by believing them to be capable of handling everything they sing about, from coke psychosis to dead grandmothers ("Nana") and post-natal depression ("She Lays Down"). They give them the credit to find the Easter Eggs hidden in their music, from melodies that echo old material ("The Sound" calls back to "She Way Out") to sequels of first album situations ("A Change of Heart" follows on from "Robbers"). Perhaps their greatest tribute is that the 1975, despite being in their mid-twenties, are just like them: messy, earnest, vulnerable, unedited, gaudy. For Britain's biggest young guitar band to ditch laddy machismo, embrace the boy band ideal, and run on feeling rather than posturing—that feels kind of radical. When you sleep can be far too much, but it's not cynical.
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