Watching The 1975’s critical ascension in 2018, two things immediately came to mind: wrestling pushes and the “This is the girl” scene from Mulholland Drive. If you had told me a couple of years ago that The 1975 would one day be compared to Radiohead and hailed as a voice of a generation band, I would have immediately asked for your dealer’s number. The 1975 were musical jobbers, not champions: An English boy band with painful haircuts, even more painful song titles, and an aura of self-aware try-hardness so powerful that you could probably see the outlines of their pretension glowing from deep space. If you were trying to bio-engineer a band whose sole purpose was to generate eye-rolls and get dunked on, The 1975 would be the result. You could almost picture Matty Healy and his trio of bandmates (drummer George Daniel, guitarist Adam Hahnn, and bassist Ross MacDonald) stirring to life on a mad scientist’s table, groaning about their favorite Bowie albums and the perils of postmodernism.
And then, they had to go and make one of the best pop-rock albums of 2018 and ruin their losing streak.
Despite its insufferable title (second only to previous record I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it), A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is a clever and often-moving record. Almost entirely produced by Healy and Daniel, the band’s third studio album is their going-for-the-title-belt moment. It checks all the right boxes that a Big Statement Album needs to make: undeniable earworms (“It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)”), songs that serve as a snapshot of our cultural moment (“Sincerity Is Scary”), and even a “We Didn’t Start The Fire” for the 21st century (“Love It If We Made It”). They even manage to shoehorn in a Joseph Beuys reference with “I Like America & America Likes Me," and it honestly wouldn’t be surprising if they had taken a page from Beuys’ playbook and had a live coyote in the studio with them when they recorded the song.
A Brief Inquiry takes the band’s love of '80s pop-rock like INXS and Hall & Oates and mashes it together with ambient interludes, woozy neo-soul horns, an almost preposterous amount of gospel choirs, “Video Killed The Radio Star” vocal filters, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics to produce a messy, chaotic record that plays out like an audio manifestation of someone’s Tumblr page. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does. By playing it entirely straight in their excesses, The 1975 manage to make good on their desire to be A Band That Matters.
The 1975 aren’t afraid to be too much, to indulge in the kind of excesses that most modern rock groups avoid like the plague. In an era where so many indie rock groups are trying to emulate Kurt Cobain’s “I would prefer not to” modus operandi, The 1975 want to be contenders. They want that spotlight shining down on them. It’s one of the big reasons behind their push: Here are a band that are willing to act like rock still matters. The way they weave together so many different styles fits with our genre-agnostic times. Unwilling to commit to one idea, they're constantly striving to find the next thing to absorb and obsess over and discard.
As a frontman, Healy fills the Noel Gallagher-shaped hole in the discourse’s heart. He says outrageous shit, takes the piss, grandstands, and drops all the right names, from Guy Debord to The Blue Nile. He’s the kind of overachieving student who has just enough charm and talent to make their mad lust for gold stars an endearing trait instead of an infuriating one. It takes a special kind of skill to sell lines like “Poison me, daddy” without sounding like a giant asshole, and somehow Healy manages to pull it off time and time again.
The 1975 are inheritors of the U2 crown circa Achtung Baby, taking on the role of being a major pop-rock act that's simultaneously ironic and sincere, preposterous and meaningful, embarrassing and transcendent. It’s a balancing act that other, more traditionally respectable acts like the Arcade Fire have tried and failed to pull off. With another new album on horizon, maybe The 1975 will keep their title run going a little longer. Or perhaps they’ll be pinned by the next people’s champion (“Here comes Billie Eilish from the top rope!”). Only TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME will tell.
The 1975. With Pale Waves. 7 p.m. Monday, April 15, at Comerica Theater, 400 West Washington Street; comericatheater.com. Tickets are $48 to $212 via Live Nation.