Review Summary: The 1975’s OK Computer.
In retrospect, “Give Yourself A Try” should have been enough of a warning. The song, like all the best 1975 singles, is almost pop-rock perfection, three guitar notes and three bass notes and stripped-back drums careening forward with explosive force. “Almost,” though, because of a few choice lyrical hotspots. Matty Healy sneering “I found a gray hair in one of my zoots / Like context in a modern debate, I just took it out” is deeply unpleasant in the way of a Shapirophile tweet: condescendingly smug, dismissive, and lazy, it bitterly swats at humor and utterly misses. The song succeeds despite it and a few other detachedly awful one-liners, but those lyrics still shine through like sun through a tattered curtain too early on a Sunday morning.
Then again, the 1975 have always succeeded in spite of their lyrics, not because of them. The band’s best songs involve nastily petty tell-offs to a girl half the narrator’s age (“Girls”), a narcissistic refusal to engage with a girlfriend’s (correct) critiques of a relationship (“The Sound”), and a belief that describing a kiss with the phrase “We've got one thing in common, it's this tongue of mine” is in any way pleasant (“Sex”). Healy has always played the part of the Tortured, Brilliant Male Artiste in his songs, souring on the women therein as soon as they voice any opposition to his M.O. of using them mainly as receptacles of his lust instead of three-dimensional human beings. The 1975 has always been a band with ears for brilliant hooks and choruses competing with a lyrical mode straight out of The Awl’s Portrait of the Alt-Bro As a Young Dumbass
, but on their past two albums the former consistently won out over the latter.
Unfortunately, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
allows Healy to engage with all his worst wordsmith’s impulses and then some. The album has been described as the band’s OK Computer
, and I think that’s a fairly accurate read: it is in every sense more ambitious, sweeping, and concerned with electronics than anything The 1975 has done in the past. Fortunately, that applies to its instrumentation and sonic arrangement, which constitutes some of the best work the band has ever accomplished. The diversity of styles covered and the success with which the band engage is astounding: They nail moody garage, hyper-autotuned club pop, and blue-eyed soul with the competence of a band far more experienced in all those genres. Like any other The 1975 album, the music is the selling point; at least that much hasn’t changed.
The ambition of A Brief Inquiry…
includes its words as well, however, and here the album faceplants. Lyrically, it is exactly the album you’d expect from the title: pompous, self-aggrandizing, hamfisted, and painfully obvious. Whereas the concept of “what if...computers...are...bad...” was at least somewhat fresh when Radiohead tackled it twenty years ago, that was, well, twenty years ago. In the interim, we’ve seen oceans of nuanced critiques of technology’s effect on modern society, and for every nuanced critique there have been about ten thousand boring and trite #takes and thinkpieces about the same subject. Art that engages effectively with the overwhelming weight of modern existence should bring something at least a little new to the table; A Brief Inquiry…
brings detached irony, cliched one-liner after cliched one-liner, and an examination of current events so vain and shallow that “surface-level” gives it too much credit.
Take “Love It If We Made It,” my least favorite song of the year. It pinballs between structural problems so quickly that none are examined beyond a name-check; it waxes cynical about the State of Modern Society so artlessly that the phrase “Modernity has failed us” is treated as a brilliant encapsulation of its ethos rather than an embarrassingly banal toss-off. Its perspective is a cheap facsimile of Banksy-lite We Live In A Society posturing - there’s little in the art world worse than Banksy’s faux-profound heavy-handedness, but a ripoff of that faux-profound heavy-handedness is certainly in that category - which is so nakedly earnest that the band’s Genius commentary literally begins with the phrase “We are in a world where…” The song characterizes the state we’re in today with the care and sensitivity of a rockist characterizing a Janelle Monae album.
The increased scope, lazy stabs at profundity, and general grossness of this album’s lyrics allow them to overwhelm the musicality for the first time in The 1975’s career. Different listeners can draw different lines in different places, but the self-serving arrogance of the performative wokeness found here is genuinely awful in a way that previous releases haven’t even sniffed. A Brief Inquiry…
focuses on the sort of activist posturing of callous dudes everywhere trying to get into the pants of the girl humoring them at the bar, societally conscious for all of the worst reasons and none of the good. Hell, that’s basically the entire point of “Sincerity Is Scary,” which tells the narrator’s lover that “Instead of calling me out, [she] should be pulling me in” and that she’s “intermediately versed in [her] own feelings” without a trace of irony. It is the most insidious form of slacktivism imaginable, married to both a healthy dose of “Well, actually…” and a fervent belief that nobody else in the history of the world has ever considered that overreliance on technology could maybe be unhealthy.
If OK Computer
had come out this year, it would be (rightly) derided as a bunch of dudes blithely and superficially retreading critiques of modern society that are both decades older and many times better over genuinely excellent production. That’s A Brief Inquiry…
in a nutshell, except with all Thom Yorke’s most selfish impulses even more front-and-center and interrogated with even less self-awareness. The album combines the most obnoxious sneering aloofness with the dullest earnestness with the most insidiously boring toxic masculinity imaginable; it is genuinely impressive on how many tonal axes it utterly fails. Buried under hundreds of layers of lyrical gunk, you might find a brilliant, invigoratingly risky pop album, but those layers’ corrosive effects aren’t worth cutting through.