Album Review: The 1975, ‘Being Funny in a Foreign Language’

    Whether or not the 1975 have proven to be ahead of their time, maybe time has a tendency to catch up to them. I’m not here to make any grand claims about the band’s visionary outlook and impact on 2010s culture – Matty Healy did enough of that in the extensive rollout for the band’s last LP, 2020’s Notes on a Conditional Form, a routine that, depending on your viewpoint, was either exhausting, entertainingor simply irrelevant. One look at that album title was enough of a hint that it would be as polarizing as anything they’ve put out, and despite its 80-minute runtime, you probably only needed to get through the first two tracks – a Greta Thunberg speech set to an ambient instrumental leading into the punk explosion of ‘People’ – to know where you landed. Calling it overwrought and self-indulgent felt like an obvious criticism with an easy rebuttal – the messiness was, of course, part of the point, but getting it didn’t do much to turn my bemused frustration into genuine enjoyment.

    Time seems to have done the trick, though. Listening to the album ahead of the release of its follow-up, somewhat removed from all the contextual baggage that begs for a discussion of the century’s post-modern affliction, was far less cumbersome than I remembered. The hits popped just as much and the genre detours didn’t detract from the overall experience, which was something you could pleasantly tune in and out of rather than vehemently obsess over. Just as I was warming up to their excessively scattered approach, though, the 1975 have once again changed their tune – which you wouldn’t necessarily have guessed based on the title of this album, Being Funny in a Foreign Language, or the bloated, satirical verses that caused a stir upon the release of its lead single, ‘Part of the Band’.

    Yet – and again, of course – Healy is quick to look in the mirror and call himself out. As early as in the traditionally eponymous opening track, he sings, “We’re experiencing life through the post-modern lens,” before rolling his eyes: “Oh, call it like it is/ You’re making an aesthetic out of not doing well and mining all the bits of you you think you can sell.”  These characteristically stuffed and self-referential moments inevitably stand out, but they’re tactfully spread across the beginning, middle, and end of the album and blended with its overriding, well, aesthetic. Sticking to and slyly subverting the 1975’s standards, Being Funny is a satisfyingly streamlined, straightforward, and sleek pop album that trades in glossy, ’80s-indebted sounds as a means of charting the highs and lows of a doomed, if vaguely identifiable, love obsession.

    Part of the reason it works is that the group has utilized their knack for sticky hooks. Aided by Jack Antonoff’s gleaming, pristine production, ‘Happiness’ is one of a few tunes on Being Funny that sound like they’re already hits but could only have flourished organically through a jam session; it’s too infectious to come off as pastiche. ‘I’m in Love With You’ similarly benefits from its simple sentiment and chorus, but it’s also shot through with an undercurrent of anxiety rather than disguising it. Some of the slower jams, especially ‘All I Need to Hear’, are gracefully delivered and sound convincingly out of time, if not out of character. But the album is at its best when the band combines this endearingly affecting presentation with more of an audacious, nuanced spirit, as in ‘Looking for Somebody (To Love)’, whose driving, Springsteen-esque pulse further complicates an ambiguous portrait of a mass shooter. ‘Human Too’ once again finds the group in Bon Iver-channeling ballad mode, but with the lights deemed even lower, Healy’s yearning for sympathy feels much more vulnerable and precise. A distinctive personality shines through even though their reference points are clear.

    If neither pure sincerity nor irony suit the 1975, earnest self-awareness offers a path forward. This has more or less always been the goal, but Being Funny is a refreshing reminder of how it can practically be achieved. It manages to be both understated and over-the-top, often in the same breath, like when Healy spills out a surprising amount of personal detail over an acoustic instrumental on ‘When We Are Together’. Notes had songs like that, but the placement of ‘When We Are Together’ as the closer feels intentional and effective, striking the exact tonal balance the whole album has been hinting at. Yet seeing it all neatly wound up almost makes me wish the album evoked some of its predecessor’s sonic whiplash, which can yield the sort of magnificent moments that Being Funny is just shy of. Scaling back is no doubt a smart move when everything-everywhere-all-at-once-ness has become the norm, but I hope the 1975 swing for the fences a bit more on their next release.

    In the early stages of the new album, the 1975 collaborated with BJ Burton, known for his radical sound design on albums such as Low’s HEY WHAT and Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, before scraping most of their work with the producer. Maybe that kind of collaboration could help push the band in a new direction in the future, but choosing to rein in some of their artistic impulses was probably the right decision, at least for this album. ‘About You’, a shoegazey standout you could easily imagine blasting off the speakers with a bunch of glitchy layers, has a lot more definition in its current, more direct form. Healy’s vocals, so confident and expressive elsewhere on the record, almost fade into the background as he reflects on a past love, animated by a guest turn from guitarist Adam Hann’s wife, Carly Holt. It’s maybe the only instance where the intensity of love, the need to focus on and capture something other than the spiraling self, is enough to briefly transcend it. Like most of us, the 1975 are often too busy remembering how to be themselves – but their world opens up when they let themselves forget, if only for a moment.

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    Whether or not the 1975 have proven to be ahead of their time, maybe time has a tendency to catch up to them. I'm not here to make any grand claims about the band's visionary outlook and impact on 2010s culture – Matty Healy...Album Review: The 1975, ‘Being Funny in a Foreign Language’