The 1975’s ‘Being Funny in a Foreign Language’ Trades Sprawl for Restraint, but Keeps the Band’s Rewarding Essence: Album Review

Since the 1975’s debut in 2013, each successive album from the band has felt like a response to a dare. The most reliable constant has been the group’s brazen insistence on scrambling its sound — a strategy that culminated in 2020’s “Notes on a Conditional Form,” an album of such restless sprawl that it became a divisive inflection point despite containing some of the band’s very best work. After that, the question lingered: Could frontman Matty Healy and his crew continue on that trajectory, inflating their ambitions beyond any logical bursting point?

To that point, some observers may be tempted to interpret “Being Funny in a Foreign Language,” the 1975’s fifth album, as a tactical retreat. “Being Funny” lassos the band’s ambitions back down to earth, eschewing untethered ambition for warm intimacy. The shift is apparent in the economical running time: 43 minutes this time around, a precipitous drop from “Notes,” which exceeded 80. A microcosm of that chasm can be found in the intros (titled, as always, “The 1975”); on “Notes,” the band enlisted environmental activist Greta Thunberg to deliver an existential plea for a generation to rise up and save the planet from fiery ruin. Here, over an elegant cascade of pianos, Healy’s focus is more earthbound: “I’m sorry if you’re living and you’re 17.”

So, we are in different territory… to a point. The final product is noticeably streamlined, and the subject matter gravitates towards matters of the heart rather than overarching societal commentary. But the sneaky success of “Being Funny” is that while it chisels away the excesses that make the 1975’s work challenging for skeptics to penetrate, it refuses to sacrifice the band’s essence. While that may read like hedging on paper, in reality, the band has simply implemented sensible guardrails to maintain focus where “Notes” gladly spilled into chaos.

That doesn’t mean the album is a model of austerity; these songs still frequently indulge Healy’s most flamboyant tendencies. The first single, “Part of the Band,” is the singer at his most verbose: “I know some ‘Vaccinista tote bag chic baristas’ sitting in east on their communista keisters.” The sparse arrangement, its chilly indie-folk recalling Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver, is more unassuming, working its way into your bloodstream when you aren’t looking.

But a more representative glimpse at the album’s disposition came with the next single, “Happiness,” where Healy sounds so hopelessly lovestruck that all other concerns have faded into his periphery. The song’s hook, as stubbornly infectious as the 1980s radio blockbusters it’s indebted to, illuminates the trickiness of this band’s balancing act: distilling pop pleasures to their simplest form while also allowing space for Healy’s inimitable (and decidedly un-simple) gifts as a writer and frontman.

The album enlists Jack Antonoff as its producer and embraces a more organic approach, one that lends a euphoric buoyancy to songs like “Happiness” and subsequent single “I’m In Love With You.” The band’s organizing principle this time around, Healy recently told the New York Times, was “‘Play it and record it.’ Real instruments. You can always find something in a computer that can do the job. Let’s just not do that.”

The resulting album, despite its overarching discipline, is refreshingly loose and direct; gone are the spoken-word discursions, electronic flourishes and cinematic instrumental interludes of 1975 albums past. The last couple of band efforts, “Notes” and 2018’s “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships,” often approximated the sensation of scrolling through a treacherous newsfeed, with their sinuous sequencing. “Being Funny,” by stripping away some of that scaffolding, delivers a less self-conscious iteration of the 1975, one that consistently impresses without visibly straining to do so. And though elements of these songs dip into the derivative (the intro’s waterfall of pianos are an unapologetic homage to LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”; “All I Need to Hear” recalls the melody of Beyonce’s “Sandcastles”), the band synthesizes the component parts into something uniquely its own.

Healy is still audacious and subversive, gleefully embarking on unanticipated detours. See the dark undercurrents of “Oh Caroline” (which may be the first love song of note to bemoan “getting cucked”), or the tongue-in-cheek, masculine posturing of “Looking for Somebody (to Love).” “Wintering” is a straight-up Christmas song; moments into the album, just as you’re getting your bearings, “The 1975” namedrops QAnon.

Healy has smartly introduced a measure of restraint, but it wouldn’t be a 1975 album without his idiosyncratic discursions; these songs, sturdy melodic creations at their core, are all the better for it. “Am I ironically woke? The butt of my joke? Or am I just some post-coke, average, skinny bloke calling his ego imagination?” he asks on “Part of the Band,” careening into a funhouse of layered self-awareness. Watching him figure out who he is, exactly, continues to be one of the most rewarding spectacles in modern music.

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