Review Summary: Another small step on the long, winding road to greatness
How much sway do professional critics actually have over public opinion these days? It’s a fair question, because the disparity between both regarding The 1975 has always been fascinating to me. A new record gets released, writers lap it up like it’s the second coming of Christ, they get accused of being paid off, the user averages on music sites end up residing around the 3-3.3 range, and the cycle continues. Remember when 2018’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships
was being touted as the next Ok Computer
? Yeah… those were fun times. But it’s not like I DON’T want to share critics’ enthusiasm when discussing these guys, as there have always been fragments
of an amazing band in their work – unfortunately, these little snippets of brilliance have always been let down by bloated, inconsistent tracklists that emphasize stylistic variety over any sort of cohesion. People can use buzzwords like “ambition” or “scope” all they want, but does it mean anything when there’s not enough substance to back it all up?
Still, let’s do away with the more cynical, jaded mentality for a second and focus on what The 1975 have in store for us this time around. Thankfully the boys have addressed the issue of bloat and delivered a much leaner collection of tunes; Being Funny in a Foreign Language
– keeping in line with the band’s penchant for weird album titles, of course – provides us with a comparatively pared down 43-minute affair, replete with pop rock and (slightly less prominent) folk rock trappings. The latter style might come as a bit of a surprise if you’ve been following The 1975’s career up to this point, but it makes a lot more sense when taking a gander at the production credits: Jack Antonoff. Yes, the man who had a hand in “folk-ifying” the likes of Taylor Swift (to good results!) and Lorde (to… not-so-good results) was brought on as co-producer for this project. And while he’s not explicitly credited as a songwriter, his presence is felt all over the record; because of this, much of your enjoyment of Being Funny in a Foreign Language
will depend on whether you enjoy his work or not.
That’s not to say that this album is a complete stylistic shift for the band: you can still hear plenty of traces of their old work, whether it’s in the form of the upbeat funk rock guitar of “Happiness”, the peppy synth lines of “Looking For Somebody (To Love)”, or frontman Matt Healy’s unique vocal style. But there’s something about Being Funny in a Foreign Language
that comes across as more organic and down-to-earth, especially when compared to its immediate predecessor Notes on a Conditional Form
; think of this as The 1975’s signature sound, reshaped and remolded to fit a new sonic template. I can definitely hear elements of Bon Iver on the record for instance, especially in the lowkey piano ballad “Human Too”, with Healy doing his best impression of Justin Vernon’s falsetto; this doesn’t really come as a surprise, considering the album’s original producer BJ Burton was selected due to his work on 22, A Million
. But what really makes Being Funny in a Foreign Language
more effective than many of its predecessors is not what does, but rather what it doesn’t
do. In creating a more humble, singer-songwriter-esque project, The 1975 have trimmed much of the excess that plagued prior records.
Alas, things aren’t entirely peachy. For all I’ve said about the record being more grounded and folky, it does create the dilemma of the experience being a bit homogeneous at times. This sounds like somewhat of a lose-lose situation, as the band are damned whether they add more variety or not; however, the variety/cohesiveness ratio could have been evened out a touch more. Slow crawls like the acoustic-led closer “When We Are Together” and the waltz-like “All I Need to Hear” are certainly well-intentioned, but in execution they come off as incredibly sappy and sleepy; Healy’s dull vocal inflections don’t really help the situation either. Where Being Funny in a Foreign Language
really shines is in its more upbeat moments, in which the record’s more rootsy direction leads to some fun permutations on the band’s traditional sound. Take “Wintering” for example: while the lyrics are still a bit awkward and heavy-handed, the combination of electric and acoustic instruments – combined with the snappy tempo – leads to an enjoyable romp through some classic heartland rock territory. Much of the same praise can be extended to the sentimental power balladry of “I’m in Love With You”: much like the aforementioned ballads, the subject matter can be quite sappy and overbearing. However, when delivered with such conviction and gusto, the nostalgic rocker can almost be seen as The 1975’s answer to Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69” (and yes, I’m saying that as a compliment).
So in the end: you win some and you lose some. The 1975 have at least taken a step forward in their sound, even if the individual parts don’t quite gel yet; if these guys could somehow reconcile their more experimental tendencies with the cohesive songwriting found here, I think we could have a truly great album on our hands. As it stands, Being Funny in a Foreign Language
is a perfectly fine
record; it’s a serviceable pop rock album with folk and heartland rock leanings, which is a look that suits them surprisingly well. But whether they’ll expand on these influences or revert back to their older work… well, I suppose only time will tell.