By Greer Clemens
The 1975’s second album, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, is aptly, if frustratingly, named. As an encapsulation of the record itself, the title functions almost too well: It’s too long, it’s cloyingly sentimental with a hint of passive-aggression — but it knows how ridiculous it is. The title signposts a self-awareness that the album wears like a badge of honor. The 1975 know that what they're doing can be easily misinterpreted, so instead of making things simple and clear, they go all in, willfully messing up the possibilities.
Sonically, this album is the most recent in a lengthening line of pop releases that tread artfully between nostalgic and contemporary, following the path laid before it by Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga’s most recent albums. The 1975 hit a sweet spot in this tradition by adopting it into their “rock band” model: two guitars, bass, drums, and synths. This traditional setup is becoming a scarcity in the Top 40 realm, and The 1975 play up that difference. The band’s video clips are dominated by images of the four members playing their instruments, as if to defy anyone to raise questions about the validity of their musicianship, the kind that are often leveled at solo performers. There are 17 tracks on I like it when you sleep..., three of which are five- or six-minute instrumentals. It’s melodic, slow-burn pop rock that is, at turns, overly ambitious; flatly unambitious and too familiar; and, sometimes, pitch perfect.
The 1975's lyrics are “cinematic” in the sense that they seem to be written with smoky, rain-soaked, gray-filtered narrative video clips in mind. “I’m looking through you while you’re looking through your phone / And then leaving with somebody else,” frontman and lyricist Matt Healy drawls. Describing a Parisian tryst, he whispers, “We share friends in SoHo / She’s a pain in the nose / I’m a pain in women’s clothes / And you’re a walking overdose in a greatcoat.” These songs almost always contain a duality of introspection and outward observation: They’re in equal parts about the person singing and his object of affection, who's constantly decried for being emotionally manipulative and shallow. The women in these portraits always seem to have a level of “fucked up” that either equals or outweighs that of the songs' narrators. On “A Change of Heart,” we hear about one such case: “You smashed a glass into pieces / That’s around the time I left / And you were coming across as clever / Then you lit the wrong end of your cigarette.” There's often some melancholy gripping the women, too – they mirror the pain they put the narrator through, or simply that of the world they live in. In a turn of phrase typical of Healy’s ability to articulate emotion with a pseudo-poetic simplicity, then neutralize it with an awkward, sarcastic comment, he laments: “You said I'm full of diseases / Your eyes were full of regret / And then you took a picture of your salad / And put it on the Internet."
It's hardly uncommon for a rock band's lyrics to depend on superficial portraits of young women, of course. The 1975’s fanbase is predominantly young and female, and romantic narratives are successful with this audience — many adolescent women appreciate the chance to absorb themselves in imagined love stories, particularly when those stories provide a contrast to the idealistic, chaste romances of their tweens. The risqué is always intriguing, and the tales of modern romance in Healy’s lyrics feel like they could be set in the same world as Rihanna’s “We Found Love” video: deviant without being debauched, the romantic equivalent of shoplifting from 7/11. After a while, though, The 1975's portraits of women start to blur into one another in discomfiting ways. Every pair of skinny jeans, every cigarette, every “face straight out of a magazine” we hear about seems to be an index of one type of woman: the messed-up, seductive nightmare, a kind of holdover emo cliché. “You’ve got a pretty kind of dirty face,” Healy sighed on their last album. The 1975 will rarely give us an image that suggests a real personality when they can offer a cliché instead.
Healy is obsessively ironic. While his self-conscious pseudo-intellectualism can be endearing — he refers to himself as a “sycophantic, prophetic, Socratic, junkie wannabe” and coins the adjective “Karcrashian” to describe celebrity excess — it often tends toward cloying instead. Speaking to NME, he’s candid about his expectation that The 1975's fans get what he's doing: “The way I address them is by giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they’re in on the joke.” He describes the record as “truly postmodern” in its attempts to problematize its own existence within mass culture, an aim that’s clear in the video clip for lead single “Love Me,” as drummer George Daniel wields a selfie stick alongside his drumsticks and Healy himself struts, shirtless and leather-clad, champagne in hand, salaciously interacting with cardboard cutouts of various British pop stars. An earlier video clip, for 2013 single “Girls”, has a similar sense of humor, but at the expense of a group of models dressed in lingerie, awkwardly saddled with instruments they’re unable to play. It’s an all-too-familiar visual for anyone who has seen a Robert Palmer video, and the gag at the video’s center is that the band aren’t pleased with it. They appear to be taking part in the video’s tropes unwillingly, refusing to channel the effervescent pop spirit that’s signaled by the sound that begins the song – the opening of a soda can, the unleashing of bubbles, sugar, and air.
While Healy hopes that his fans are all part of his inside joke, he still faces a problem: He’s critiquing pop’s artifice by participating in it. It’s important not to underestimate a pop listenership (especially a young, female one), but it can be just as risky to work under the assumption that every listener understands that those leather pants are tongue-in-cheek, and that Instagram-salad joke is knowingly cringe-inducing. True fans who trawl through lyric booklets and longform interviews are interested in understanding what’s at work behind the scenes, but someone who hears “Love Me” in an Urban Outfitters probably isn't. The band try to cleverly avoid this trap by constructing songs that can be read on two tiers. A casual listener who isn’t interested in mining the songs for gold can hear the hook and the groove on single “The Sound,” and on that basis they can either dismiss it or embrace it. Then, if a listener wants to delve deeper they can, and in doing so decide that the lyrics are sexist, clichéd, and borderline sociopathic. Or, perhaps, they can look up exactly what “Socratic” means in this context and decide that the songs work with a deep, self-aware irony, ritually reflexive and subtly, constantly self-critical.
Spend enough time close-reading The 1975's words, and it's easy to wonder how important lyrics are to 2016’s Top 40, anyway. Perhaps, in the attention-economy age, the tone of a pop star’s vocals will grab a listener and make them stay more effectively than any lyrics will. While Rihanna’s “Work” contains the truly wonderful line “Nobody text me in a crisis,” her virtuosic vocal stylings are what make the track interesting. The way she uses controlled, understated phrasing and breathiness, only climbing to a belt once or twice throughout, and the proud centrality of her Bajan accent make this song a notable turning point in Rihanna’s vocal toolkit — always individual, but now even more compelling in its nuance. Similarly, Zayn Malik’s trio of solo singles make sure to spotlight his vocal tone, even as the star artfully slurs most of his words. Malik seems intent upon us hearing the curse words he drops on "Pillowtalk," reminding us that we most certainly are not listening to One Direction – but otherwise the lyrics are ornamental to the voice itself, full of rich vibrato and soaring falsetto.
These two artists, whose legions of fans surely outweigh those of The 1975, don’t seem to need to communicate on any deep textual level with their audience, ironic or not. They’re able to start conversations without the self-aware storytelling; instead they focus on mood, implicit identity, and sound. In one of The 1975's catchiest lyrics, Healy belts, “Well, I know when you’re around / 'Cause I know the sound of your heart." Here, his romantic object emulates something his pop counterparts have already mastered: Sound comes first, sentiment second.