At various points in the 1980s, you could not be a serious music fan and publicly acknowledge your enjoyment of Duran Duran or INXS or George Michael. These were not serious musicians. These were preening prettyboys who made music for adolescent girls — who, everyone knew, did not make their own aesthetic decisions when figuring out which music they liked. This entire line of thinking was regressive, exclusionary, self-defeating bullshit. Duran Duran and INXS and George Michael were all smart, canny, gifted performers and songwriters, and they all had curious and frisky takes on pop music. They found fun ways to play with their personas while delivering songs that have held up as absolute solid-gold pop classics, and all the people who dismissed them look pretty fucking stupid right now. And that line of thinking remains bullshit right now. Consider the case of the 1975.
If it seems like I’m writing this piece as a preemptive defense, that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s because I’ve seen what happens in the comments section everytime someone at Stereogum says something nice about the 1975. People act like we shitted directly into Jeff Mangum’s nostrils. People’s reasons for discomfort seem to have little to do with the group’s music and everything to do with the way frontman Matthew Healy looks and carries himself. Healy wears teased hair and eye makeup and generally no shirt, or at least no shirt that will cover up his chest and crotch tattoos. He carries himself like someone who expects to be treated as a heartthrob — which is exactly how Simon Le Bon and Michael Hutchence and George Michael once carried themselves. This is appropriate, since the music that the 1975 make is basically some fusion of what Duran Duran, INXS, and George Michael might’ve made if they’d grown up with access to MP3 blogs.
Now: The 1975 can be bad. They can be fucking obnoxious as shit. But that’s part of their charm. Their entire aesthetic is unapologetically glossy in a way that’s lovably sinister; they sing about cocaine hangovers in a way that seems designed to appeal to One Direction fans. They named their album I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, a title so bad that it manages to be pretentious and creepy all at once, a rare feat. And it’s not like the 1975 don’t know how to name things! The album includes a dazed, blinking-lights-in-fog instrumental called “Please Be Naked.” That’s a great title! The album should be called Please Be Naked! And the album is 74 interminable minutes long. That is way too long for a slick pop album! But it’s that long because the 1975 were bursting with ideas, and they weren’t willing to give up on any of those ideas.
They are, in other words, a group willing and even happy to fall on their collective face. And I like it when you sleep is an album so weird, so packed with sudden and jarring tonal shifts and excursions, that it constantly feels ready to completely fall apart. I find that deeply, honestly refreshing. In today’s indie rock underground, virtually every band, including the legitimately great ones, find one solid sound and stick to it for at least an album at a time. The 1975 can barely stick to one sound for a single song. And that willingness to get utterly cold stupid with it is what enables them to have a truly magical pop moment like “A Change Of Heart,” a tender and shattering new wave ballad about an absolutely unbearable couple who are deep into the makeup-to-breakup cycle. “Was it your breasts from the start?” Healy wonders a few seconds into the part, then admits, “They played a part.” He sings that in a sensitive sigh, like a true heartthrob would, but there’s acid in every word. Plenty of that venom is directed at the woman: “You were coming across as clever / Then you lit the wrong end of a cigarette.” But plenty of it is directed back at Healy, too: “I’ll quote On The Road like a twat.” Meanwhile, the music acts like this is all the most romantic shit ever, synths shimmering and twinkling like the soft-focus prom finale of your favorite ’80s teen drama.
And it’s not just that song. The album is all over the place. One song will be a halfway-to-tropical-house electronic glimmer, and the next will be gooey Cocteau Twins-style dreampop. And then gospel-infused blue-eyed soul. And then yipping Nile Rodgers-biting pop-funk. And then M83-style stadium-synth. And then quirked-up new-wave gleam. And then heart-stung acoustic balladry. None of it makes sense together, and all of it is worlds away from the fairly straightforward commercial pop-rock that the band were doing on their 2013 self-titled debut. And not all of it lands, naturally. But the 1975 are better at most of these sounds than they really have any right to be. And some of those left turns are just shattering. The title track is six and a half minutes of meditative keyboard twinkles and transcendently bummed massed harmonies. I love it, and I love how confounded I am that this group managed to make this.
It’s not that the 1975 don’t have a sonic identity. They have one. They’re good at certain things. They’re good at flirty choruses and ultra-clean guitar solos and knowing self-love. They’re good at dramatic pauses, the parts of the song where you just know Healy will theatrically flip his hair in the video. And there’s plenty of that stuff on the album. Even at their most self-consciously weird, the 1975 are pop craftsmen, and even their shoegaziest moments have hooks. But they are also absolutely willing to throw away everything that makes them a salable entity. Even if you don’t like them, you have to respect that.
I bring up Duran Duran and INXS and George Michael again and again, and I hear huge pieces of all three in this album, especially on a single like “Love Me.” And it’s worth noting that the 1975 haven’t yet managed to make a moment of incandescent magic like “Hungry Like The Wolf” or “Never Tear Us Apart” or “Praying For Time.” But with the record industry in shambles, they’re also free to take chances that those acts never got to take. They get to extol “a simple Epicurean philosophy” on a hiccuping disco jam with gospel singers on the chorus, and they get to be plainspoken about mental illness and drug abuse without losing heartthrob status. I like it when you sleep is an album brave enough to be ridiculous, and we don’t get enough of those.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Santigold’s bright, streamlined 99¢.
• School Of Seven Bells’ goodbye album SVIIB.
• Mothers’ warm, scraping debut When You Walk A Long Distance, You Are Tired.
• Oranssi Pazuzu’s psychedelic black metal zone-out Värähtelijä.
• DMA’s’ bleary, Britpop-inspired Hills End.
• Mount Moriah’s countrified roots ramble How To Dance.
• Quilt’s sharp, catchy psych-popper Plaza.
• Merchandise side project Death Index’s self-titled gloom-punk debut.
• Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld’s solo move The Ridge.
• Yuck’s reliably ’90s-rocking Stranger Things.
• Odd Nosdam’s sample-happy instrumental work Sisters.
• Atlanta rap weird Rome Fortune’s proper debut LP Jerome Raheem Fortune.
• Crater’s industrial pop debut Talk To Me So I Can Fall Asleep.
• Pinkshinyultrablast’s twinkling shoegazer Grandfeathered.
• Former Beta Band frontman Steve Mason’s solo album Meet The Humans.
• Andrew Weatherall’s hazy electronic LP Covenanza.
• Punked-up Kanye understundy HXLT’s self-titled album.
• Krater’s black metal rager Urere.
• Witching Waves’ considered post-punker Crystal Cafe.
• Nico Yaryan’s scratchy debut What A Tease.
• Altarage’s death-metal beast-out NIHIL.
• The Dirty Nil’s guttural punk debut Higher Power.
• Lucy Dacus’ openhearted singer-songwriter debut No Burden.
• Tim Woulfe’s slumber-themed The Sleep Cycles.
• Shooter Jennings’ impossible country-rock Giorgio Moroder tribute Countach (For Giorgio).
• Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ sadly inevitable This Unruly Mess I’ve Made.
• The Blind Willie Johnson tribute compilation God Don’t Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson.
• Jawbreaker Reunion’s haha and then what ;) cassette.
• Fake Boyfriend’s Mercy EP.
• Acid Dad’s Let’s Plan A Robbery EP.
• Gosh Pith’s Gold Chain EP.
• Bullion’s Loop The Loop EP.