Calling the 1975 a boy band is accurate but a bit insulting. They meet the criteria, for sure: a charismatic frontman, a self-imposed bad boy image and a cult following out of Tumblr-obsessed teenage girls. But when the Manchester foursome released their self-titled debut album in 2014, we didn’t get a string of formulaic love songs like One Direction’s corny “What Makes You Beautiful” or 5 Seconds of Summer’s god-awful “She Looks So Perfect.” Instead, we got a bizarre yet intoxicating concoction of pop rock, funk, R&B and melodic synths topped with animated ramblings about drugs, ragers and sex.
The 1975 are an alternative rock band that revels in debauchery. And at its center is ￼Matthew Healy, the hypersexual, metrosexual lead singer and lyricist with chopstick legs ￼and thick black curls.
￼A pair of catchy dance tracks, “Chocolate” and “Sex,” transported the band from grimy London bars into the O2 Academy, Terminal 5 and, in a few months, the Barclays Center. Witty, up-tempo songs may have made the 1975 alt rock’s hottest commodity, but the album’s standout tracks are the stoner jams that carry a dreamy, cinematic quality. “You’re a liar, at least all your friends are,” Healy sings on “You.” “So am I, just typically drowned in your car.” Blending affecting verses into a sea of ambient electronics, those ballads exhibit an artistry rarely seen in today’s pop music.
The 1975 get good when they get real. Which is why it’s a surprise that their dreamy, ￼cinematic new record feels so underwhelming.
￼After a two-year hiatus, the leather-clad glam rockers rang in 2016 with an emotionally- charged, ridiculously-titled sophomore album, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It. Ten days after its release, it knocked off Adele at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. If they were on the cusp of superstardom, they’ve surely
crossed it now.
The 17-track compilation is equal parts flamboyance and feel, marrying house 80s dance pop with atmospheric ￼house. But while the band’s debut album extracts influences from other artists (from Michael Jackson to M83) to build a distinct sound, I Like it When You Sleep feels derivative and lazy as a body of work. Marked by heavy, head-bobbing synths, the chillwave production of “UGH!” could have been plucked straight from a Neon Indian record; “Lostmyhead” sounds like a disposed Brian Eno mix; and one of the best tracks, “The Sound,” feels like a sequel to the underrated “M.O.N.E.Y” from The 1975–an improved sequel, yes, but still a sequel.
That said, the album’s highs are dizzying, glorious highs. The infectious lead single, “Love Me,” puts a funky spin on a throwback disco jam, meshing groovy guitar riffs with frenzied pop-rock vocals. “She’s American” weaves synthpop hooks with witty wordplay to poke fun at the cultural difference between the U.K and the U.S. “The Sound” contains some of the band’s most creative and beautiful lyrics to date. “Somebody Else” and “A Change of Heart,” two atmospheric ballads, dive into the desolation and anguish that The 1975 only hints at, showing Healy at his most vulnerable: “I can’t give you my soul,” he laments, “cause we’re never alone.”
The record is most compelling when Matt Healy takes the reins and lets his vocals fluctuate violently in both pitch and tone, from loving whisper to piercing falsetto, from adoration to disdain. “You’re so conceited,” he sneers in “The Sound,” voice dripping with contempt. “I said, “I love you.” What does it matter if I lie to you?” A verse later, he backtracks and rambles, “It’s not about reciprocation, it’s just all about me: a sycophantic, prophetic, Socratic junkie wannabe.” By the chorus, he swallows his pride and confesses, chanting like a broken record: “I know when you’re around cause I know the sound, I know the sound of your heart.”
But for the most part, Healy’s lyrical prowess and animated vocals are tragically underused. Instead of building beats around his voice, the producers bury Healy under layers upon layers of fluttering synths and dreamlike harps. Though enchanting, none of the album’s slower tracks captures the regret and yearning the way “You” does. Healy drifts absentmindedly from “Nana,” a heartfelt yet sleepy ode to his grandmother, to “Paris,” a safe and unforgettable pop ballad, to “Please Be Naked,” a wordless track with instrumentals so bland that it feels utterly pointless. As alluring and affecting as his lower register can be, Healy’s charm rests primarily in his primal howls and wild inflections, and it’s a shame that we barely get that to hear that side of his voice on this record.
As with its predecessor, I Like The Way You Sleep is plagued by oversaturation and overproduction. From the neon-lit album art to glossy music videos and an Instagram account full of black and white portraits, the 1975 try way too hard to market themselves as the artsy trendsetters in fashion and music. And a 17-track record is a behemoth by today’s standards, especially if half of its content can be discarded. The album has a handful of excellent songs that would have made for an excellent compilation, but now they’re outliers that make a below average record above average.
Thematically and sonically, I Like the Way You Sleep is more cohesive than The 1975, but the band’s appeal revolves around its messiness, frankness and willingness to flicker from one sound to another. The combination of rawness and bravado is what sets the 1975 apart from both mainstream boy bands like One Direction and indie rock royalty like the Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend. And that’s what they should continue doing: bask in decadence, experiment with unusual sounds, and drop the sleepy ballads.