Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: The 1975 Being Funny In A Foreign Language

Dirty Hit/Interscope
Dirty Hit/Interscope

How do you even process an album this straightforward from a band this perennially, constitutionally scattered? When the 1975 released their fourth LP Notes On A Conditional Form two and a half years ago, a massive curated data dump into the heart of the lockdown-era pandemic, the messy sprawl was part of the appeal (and maybe even the whole point). The album was just barely too long to fit on a CD, 22 tracks swerving from one genre exercise to the next, all those stabs at shoegaze and UK garage and countrified emo and gauche ’80s gloss unified by the personal sensibility of Matty Healy and his guys. It was overwhelming, mostly in a good way — the culmination of a ballooning process the 1975 had been undergoing throughout the whole 2010s. I loved how all-over-the-place they managed to be without losing their sense of self, and I loved how that pretentious-meets-adventurous spirit mirrored Healy’s lyrical sweet spot in the overlap between too-clever and TMI.

Being Funny In A Foreign Language is a different kind of 1975 album. In umpteen interviews, Healy has spoken about the band’s desire to scale back the all-consuming ambition and make a more naturalistic record: “Instead of a magnum opus, what about more like a Polaroid?” They eschewed computers at every opportunity and aimed to capture the feeling of a band playing together in a room. They formed songs out of jam sessions, locking into a groove and riding it out for minutes at a time. After scrapping most of their work with indie rock’s leading sonic refractor BJ Burton, they brought in Jack Antonoff — a master of smoothing out complicated artists, for better and worse — to co-produce the album alongside the usual braintrust of Healy and drummer George Daniel. Even the promotional elements have been reined in and straightened out: suits and ties in the promo photos, interviews that feel more self-aware than incendiary, a tour quite professionally dubbed The 1975 At Their Very Best.

The result is the most streamlined 1975 album since their self-titled debut nine years ago. Back then they were writing sparkling pop-rock anthems that crackled with youthful energy, the kind that animates impossibly big dreams and nights on the town that ache with anxious excitement. Now they’re in their early thirties, cleaned up and settled down. Being Funny In A Foreign Language finds them more casual and relaxed than ever, content to be themselves without striving to show off how many multitudes they contain. The tracklist is half as long as the last one. The genre experiments are fewer and farther between. The songs largely stay in their glossy, brassy ’80s pop comfort zone — that knowing pastiche of acts like Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and Huey Lewis And The News — and are no longer so tightly wound.

That simplifying impulse extends to the lyrics, to a point. The official line is that Healy is tired of using irony and postmodernism as a shield, that he aimed for greater sincerity and focus this time around while continuing to opine on the intricacies of 21st century life. “I think I’ve realized what I do: I write about how we communicate interpersonally in the modern age — mediated by the internet,” he told the New York Times. “Love, loss, addiction. That’s what I always do. Every other record has been a bit like, ‘Love! And me! And this! And that!’ I think Being Funny is the first time where I’m a bit like, ‘OK, right, love. Let’s do love.'” The album is not unilaterally fixated on it, but romance does animate a large percentage of these songs, which puts a bittersweet spin on these songs since Healy reportedly split from their presumed inspiration FKA Twigs this summer after two years dating.

Many of those love songs are among the most direct in the 1975 catalog. Early singles “Happiness” and “I’m In Love With You” — loping vamps that sound very much like they emerged from jams, with Healy working out his toplines while surfing the unchanging current — are among several tracks built around one-line refrains repeated ad nauseam. The funky, blustery “Happiness,” sort of a thought exercise about Talking Heads going adult contemporary, comes off more like a feeling than a song. It has grown on me in the weeks since release, but its open-ended whoosh pales in comparison to something as nervy and dynamic as the spring-loaded “UGH!” from 2016’s I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It. Sometimes the less-is-more approach is effective, as on the overwhelming “About You,” a grandly swelling Achtung Baby callback centered on the question “Do you think I have forgotten about you?” Still, a chorus that’s literally just “I’m in love with you” is a waste of Healy’s talents. Not every song needs to be a treatise and not every album an epic, but there’s a thin line between mature restraint and undercooked songwriting.

Fortunately, Being Funny In A Foreign Language only partially adheres to the band’s self-imposed restrictions, and it tends to be a lot more nuanced and engaging than “I’m In Love With You.” There is no streamlining the mind of Matty Healy, so those who come to 1975 albums to indulge in his indulgent lyrics will find much to love and/or hate here. Healy remains at his most potent when blurring the lines between insufferable navel-gazing and savvy social commentary, as on lead single “Part Of The Band,” an orchestral new wave stunner that unfolds into one of many instances of Bon Iver worship on the album. (And why wouldn’t they worship the band that re-popularized and re-contextualized so much of the ’80s cheese that has become their stock and trade?) Against some of the 1975’s most gorgeously graceful music to date, Healy pokes, prods, and winks his way through some of his most loaded and audacious lyrics, climaxing in a verse so quotable I feel compelled to preserve it here in full, months after its release, to see what kinds of nonverbal sounds and eye movements it elicits from you:

I know some vaccinista tote bag chic baristas
Sitting in east on their communista keisters
Writing about their ejaculations
“I like my men like I like my coffee
Full of soy milk and so sweet, it won’t offend anybody”
Whilst staining the pages of The Nation

That’s the Matty Healy I know and love! He can talk all he wants about writing uncomplicated love songs, but these kinds of over-the-top singles-as-essays — the ones that communicate something real and lived-in about modern culture but double as Healy pushing buttons, phrased to challenge the limits of good taste in a way that mirrors the band’s musical aesthetic — are central to the 1975’s appeal. Healy must know it, too, or else he wouldn’t have threaded several more of them throughout Being Funny In A Foreign Language. The album’s first and last tracks get similarly tangled up in self-referential poetic prose, and they’re similarly among the album’s best.

The group’s latest eponymous album opener begins Being Funny with hyperactive, brimming-with-possibility piano chords so obviously inspired by LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” that Healy’s original lyrics featured the scrapped line “You owe James Murphy 20% of this song, your career, and the whole idea/ Of living in the city with a tingle of fear.” The words that did make it in include “thicc,” “Qanon,” and “Adderall” rhymed with “Aperol,” plus this sequence that could work as a summary for this band’s whole deal: “I’m feeling apathetic after scrolling through hell/ I think I’ve got a boner but I can’t really tell.” Healy eventually takes himself to task for “making an aesthetic out of not doing well and mining all the bits of you you think you can sell” before returning to a line that jibes with his new older-and-wiser posture: “I’m sorry if you’re living and you’re 17.” Like most of the best 1975 songs, it’s immaculately constructed, personal to an almost alienating degree, nearly as thoughtful as it believes itself to be, and will cause the band’s haters to mime the jackoff hand motion.

Even better is closer “When We Are Together,” a breezy and understated acoustic ballad fleshed out with banjo and fiddle, which smuggles in impressive amounts of oversharing around the refrain, “The only time I feel I might get better/ Is when we are together.” Functioning as more of an ellipsis than end punctuation, it’s so gentle and pretty that you could easily miss how much is crammed into its lyrics. Speculation that the song is about Twigs is seemingly borne out by a reference to creative competition among two lovers with huge egos. There’s also this line, which references Healy’s departure from Twitter after his tweet about George Floyd’s death alongside the 1975’s our-generation-is-fucked anthem “Love It If We Made It” struck various onlookers as tone-deaf: “It was poorly handled/ The day we both got canceled/ Because I’m a racist and you’re some kind of slag.”

“When We Are Together” is not the only song on which Healy mentions getting “soft-canceled” (as he’s referred to the experience in interviews). It is the only one where he skeptically considers the buzzword “gaslighting,” though he’s expressed similar sentiments in the past (see: “Sincerity Is Scary”). He also sings about masturbation quite a bit on the album, a subject that rivals his obsession with the ways we relate online. All this plus his admiration for a media sphere including Red Scare, Joe Rogan, and various Substacks might have you raising your eyebrows all the way past your hairline, but who can really be surprised to see this particular public figure gravitating toward edgelords, provocateurs, and self-professed free thinkers? It’s all part and parcel with the ultra-topical, disconcertingly personal ethos that made the 1975 one of the most polarizing and fascinating bands of their era. They’re still finding new ways to be cringe within the context of songwriting so inspired that I’m compelled to roll with it. Much of the fun of following this band is wrapped up in that tightrope act.

Still, Being Funny has plenty to offer that hypothetical fan who wishes Healy would play it a little straighter, if only slightly. The relentlessly spunky but lyrically dark “Looking For Somebody (To Love),” the most obviously Antonoff-addled song for its resemblance to Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark,” seems to find sympathy for a mass shooter who was bullied and rejected, while also critiquing his thought process and the society that produced him. The similarly vibrant and uptempo “Wintering,” so winsomely cheery I might even describe it as zippy, is a backdoor Christmas song full of familial tenderness and the repeated promise, “I’ll be home on the 23rd.” On the slow jam front, the rootsy love song “All I Need To Hear” channels Wilco in piano ballad mode, “Human Too” blooms into some tasteful jazzy downtempo hip-hop, and the howl-along “Oh Caroline” instantly enters the electric-piano-and-gated-drums hall of fame, with references to suicide and “getting cucked” along the way.

As it turns out, the new 1975 is not so different from the old 1975. I have a hard time imagining Being Funny In A Foreign Language becoming anyone’s favorite album by this band, and I don’t expect many people to switch sides in the great 1975 debate after hearing it. At first, having become accustomed to these guys doing the most as an operating principle, I was disappointed at the album’s relatively limited scope. The more I live with it, the more it wins me over, one track at a time. Every 1975 album has its hits and misses, and what this one lacks in absurd bombast, it makes up for in a lower percentage of failed experiments. Before Being Funny I had no category for a taut, focused, all-killer no-filler 1975 album. This ain’t that, but I now believe they have a release like that in them, and I’d love it if they made it.

Being Funny In A Foreign Language is out 10/14 on Dirty Hit/Interscope.

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