Album Review: The 1975, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It

Music

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.

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Dazed and Confused: 20 Years On

Movies and Books

It’s a definitive moment of 90s cinema, the era of Gen X slacker flicks: Six high schoolers sprawled on the 50 yard line of their empty football field, gazing at the ink-blue canvas of a pre-dawn sky and trading hard-hitting stoner thoughts on the meaning of life.

“If I start referring to these as the best years of my life,” says Pink, the star quarterback and alpha dog of the school, “remind me to kill myself.”

“You just gotta keep on livin’, man,” comes the now iconic response from Wooderson, the twentysomething womanizer with greasy hair and a faint mustache. “L-I-V-I-N.”

Such existential ramblings, at once satirical and deeply profound, transformed Richard Linklater’s 1993 low-budget comedy, Dazed and Confused, into a coming-of-age cult classic.

It follows a group of students on the last day of school in 1976. What happens? Not much, other than what usually happens–underage drinking, unsupervised parties, first kisses, pseudo-hazing rituals, and a whole lot of soul searching. By the time dawn breaks, Linklater has given us a hearty throwback to the 70s, a soundtrack full of classic rock anthems, and a pair of future superstars: Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck.

But Dazed and Confused is more than just an authentic portrayal of the rebellious and indulgent 70s youth culture. It is an impressionist painting of the adolescent mind, expressing the timeless struggle to escape mediocrity and find purpose, to discard the future and embrace the now. Its characters are as familiar to us millenials as they were to Gen Xers upon its initial release 22 years ago. They are reckless yet empathetic, lazy yet passionate. They are, for the lack of a more apt phrase, dazed and confused–as we are now.

“I’d like to quit thinking of the present as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else,” says Cynthia the redhead scene-stealer, in what could be a mantra for the youth movement.

With seamless transitions from one vignette to the next, Linklater’s understated direction captures the immaturities of youth with an observant, compassionate eye. The weakness of the script, marked by one-dimensional characters and incoherent plotlines, actually adds to the haziness of adolescence and the realism of the filmmaking. The absence of plot twists keeps viewers fixated on the characters’ hilarious and deceptively deep dialogue, giving us an unfiltered look into the teenage soul at a moment in time.

Unlike two other seminal high school movies, Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High and John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused skirts pivotal occasions like pregnancy and graduation, focusing instead on the mundane events and conversations we’re most likely to forget. Like those of Heckerling and Hughes, Linklater’s high schoolers are flawed and privileged, irresponsible and irreverent. But rather than showing how they are capable of change, he brings forth their redeeming qualities: self-awareness and loyalty. They’re slackers and thinkers who could not care less about societal progress but would do anything for their friends.

To Linklater, adolescence is the accumulation of fleeting moments that we take for granted–silent drives around town, trivial gossip and aimless musings about life. Over the years, those moments dissolve into the abyss, leaving behind just a shadow of the frustration and optimism we felt in those painfully beautiful years.

The combination of quotable one-liners, quirky characters and nostalgia for the 70s gave Dazed and Confused its lasting legacy and ageless appeal. We remember Wooderson’s pick up line (“Alright, alright, alright.”), Slater’s Martha Washington monologue (“She a hip, hip, hip lady, man!”), and Mitch’s freshman initiation beating. We remember the bell-bottoms and denim overalls, the Aerosmith opener and the Foghat closer.

But more sharply, we remember the sense of familiarity that envelops us when as we consume each scene, mentally flicking through instances in which we’ve said a similar thing or felt a similar way.

Dazed and Confused isn’t inventive or inspiring. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a fond reflection on the American youth culture and how little it has changed in four decades. It reminds us that even as the world becomes unrecognizable, we can still find parts of ourselves in relics from the past. 

Craving Something I Can Feel

Music

Album Review: James Bay, Chaos and the Calm

Teenage Wasteland. Wild Youth. Roaring 20s. Our coming-of-age years have been romanticized to such an extent that destruction has become synonymous with desire, stability with stagnancy. You haven’t lived if you haven’t fucked up big at least a few times over. But the ugly truth is that the twenties isn’t such a glorious time. Those supposedly exotic years are more like a blissful purgatory, like a boat floating on a serene creek separating optimism from disillusionment. Your dreams have amassed too much force for the life you knew, and the life you will know hasn’t yet shattered your lofty expectations.

Navigating through the emotional traps of youth is like walking a tightrope. As long as you stare intently only at your feet, you’ll stay in that blissful purgatory and take life as it goes. But my eyes are always wandering, behind my shoulder down memory lane and up, way up ahead, into stormy skies and distant stars that spell nothing but disaster.

That’s why I can’t stop listening to Chaos and the Calm, the debut studio album by English singer-songwriter James Bay. It’s a twelve-track album bursting with desire, courage, excitement, loneliness, heartbreak, and love, the emotion more powerful and prevalent than any other during those complicated years. It’s an homage to all the joys and pitfalls of growing up. It’s an unfiltered, intimate portrait of a changing mind – confronting the uncertainty of the near future (Move Together) and the pain of separation (Scars); reflecting on relationships gone awry (Let it Go) and the claustrophobic frustration of being ensnared in a hometown he had outgrown (Craving).

James Bay isn’t a household name, but he’s soaring to superstardom faster than Stay With Me hit number 1. A year ago he was busking at Brighton, playing at open mics, and opening for Hozier. Now he’s selling out arenas across the world and opening for Taylor Swift in front of 50k fans. It won’t be all that surprising if he follows the same Grammy-sweeping path as Sam Smith.

An acoustic powerhouse who blends bluesy riffs with confessional lyrics and plaintive vocals, Bay effortlessly weaves soul, blues, and indie rock in an album full of heart. Nowhere is his composite style more evident than in Hold Back the River, the gem of the album and the highly anticipated closer at concerts. The preachy, uplifting single is highlighted by progressive tempo and seamless transitions from a smoother lower register to rougher aching falsettos.

Just as compelling as its preachy chorus is the tinge of nostalgia prevalent throughout the album: “Once upon a different life/We rode our bikes into the sky/But now we’re caught against the tide/Those distant days all flashing by.” It’s echoed in the sense of yearning from Let it Go: “Trying to fit your hand inside of mine / When we know it just don’t belong/There’s no force on earth/Could me feel right.”

You leave a past you’re sick of to pursue the future of your dreams. What if you get lost chasing those dreams? What if the road gets too tough and all you want to do is return to the home you escaped? Maybe feeling lost and confused is what we twenty-somethings have in common.

Maybe we’re all just craving something we can feel.

Why I Adore Boyhood and Indie Movies in General

Movies and Books

I’ve been wanting to write about both Boyhood and indie flicks for a long time. Since I started blogging, to be quite honest. I kept putting it off because I’m scared of writing reviews on things I love and I’m petrified of failing to meet my own expectations. If I’m excited to blog about something, I expect it to be spectacular (to me, at least). And way too frequently, it’s just not. Anyhow, I’ve decided to just fuck it tonight because it’s so late and I so can’t sleep. I need NyQuil.

So many people hated Boyhood because “nothing happens” and the acting is poor. The first part is technically false but visually true; the second part is 96.9% false. You see, if you’re watching a completed three-hour film obviously something must have happened. A cat farting is something happening. Two people talking about the color of fart is something happening. A boy growing older is something happening. So people claiming “nothing happened” should really just look up the definitions of “things” and “happen” before they open their stupid mouths. Okay, that’s not really fair because the first time I watched it, I too thought, “Why am I so attached to a movie about a some boy going through puberty?” Visially, nothing much really happens at all. There’s no climax (lol), no plot twists, no drama. So yes, Boyhood isn’t your typical Hollywood blockbuster.

But drama does not consist exclusively of action and suspense and noise. It contains tension, emotion, and unexpected changes, none of which have to be coupled with violence or scandal. I think Hollywood blockbusters have trained us into believing that drama and subtlety are mutually exclusive. If your nails don’t dig into the seat rests and your jaws don’t land on the ground at least once, then that movie sucked because “nothing happened.” If you’re neither shocked nor confused nor euphoric nor devastated, then you’ve wasted 1/12 of a day of your life.

The magic of Boyhood is in its realism – its unfiltered, unflinching portrayal of a physical and emotional movement through time. Yes, “nothing happens,” but isn’t that the whole point? Nothing happens when we’re growing up. We just grow up. Literally. Our adolescent years aren’t defined by our first kiss, or the one time we got caught smoking weed, or even graduation. Those are the light posts that illuminate a plain, dark road. That road is our journey, and it’s defined by the mundane moments that we’ve taken granted – awkward silences during family meals, endless arguments about grades, PMSing, getting dressed for school, writing essays deep into the night, talking till dawn with your best friends. And all the laughter and all the tears – you can’t even remember what inspired them but you know they were everywhere during those unforgettable years.

Maybe you’re whipping your head left and right as you’re reading this. Maybe you’re thinking that the definition only covers the highlights, otherwise we’ll never be able to sum up anything succinctly. That’s probably true.

But listen to this: my adolescence is my first kiss, my first drink, my first run in with the cops, and my graduation.

Isn’t that ridiculous? Adolescence (I don’t know exactly when it starts or ends) covers a good decade of our lives. 1/8 of our entire lifespan if we’re lucky enough to die of old age. It should be a struggle to define such a significant period of our existence. Adolescence is a blurry mess of challenges, changes, resentment for parental control, anticipation for college and freedom, and longing for childhood innocence. It’s a plethora of paradoxes. And the only way you define a plethora of paradoxes is by making a three-hour epic over 12 short years. Good luck.

In the end, what I love most about Boyhood…and indie films in general, is that it makes you think twice about the mundane. Boring is a funny word because I don’t think it applies to anything. Calling something boring only confirms our own laziness. If something is complex, call it weird; if something is ordinary, call it dull. It’s so easy to do, and it masks our ignorance. This may be a horrible comparison, but I feel like indie films are the introverts of the film industry. Quirky, quiet, and overshadowed by its louder, more charismatic counterparts. We need indie films as well as introverts, because along with thinkers we need things to make us think.