How does one even treat an album so straightforward from a band so perennially, constitutionally scattered? When 1975 released their fourth LP Notes on a conditional form two and a half years ago, a massively curated data dump into the heart of the lockdown-era pandemic, the messy sprawl was part of the appeal (and maybe even the whole point). The album was just barely too long to fit on a CD, 22 tracks that swung from one genre exercise to the next, all those stabs at shoegaze and UK garage and countrified emo and gauche 80s gloss united by the personal sensibility of Matty Healy and his guys. It was overwhelming, mostly in a good way—the culmination of a ballooning process that the 1975s had undergone throughout the 2010s. I loved how all over the place they managed to be without losing their sense of self, and I loved how the pretentious-meets-adventurous spirit mirrored Healy’s lyrical sweet spot in the overlap between overly clever and TMI.
Being funny in a foreign language is a different album from 1975. In numerous interviews, Healy has spoken of the band’s desire to scale back the all-consuming ambition and make a more naturalistic record: “Instead of a magnum opus, how about more like a polaroid?” They avoided computers at every opportunity and aimed to capture the feeling of a band playing together in a room. They formed songs out of jam sessions, locking into a groove and riding it out for minutes at a time. After scrapping most of their work with indie rock’s leading sonic refractor BJ Burton, they brought in Jack Antonoff – a master of smoothing out complicated artists, For better and worse – to co-produce the album with Healy and drummer George Daniel’s usual brain trust. Even the promotional elements have been reined in and straightened out: suits and ties in the promo photos, interviews that feel more self-aware than rousing, a tour quite professionally dubbed The 1975 At Their Very Best.
The result is the most streamlined 1975 album since their self-titled debut nine years ago. Back then, they wrote sparkling pop-rock anthems that crackled with youthful energy, the kind that animate impossibly big dreams and nights on the town aching with anxious tension. Now they are only in their thirties, cleaned up and settled down. Being funny in a foreign language finding them more relaxed and at ease than ever, content to be themselves without striving to show how many volumes they contain. The track list is half as long as the last one. The genre experiments are fewer and further between. The songs remain largely in their glossy, brassy 80s pop comfort zone – the familiar pastiche of acts like Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and Huey Lewis And The News – and are no longer as tight.
The simplistic impulse extends to the lyrics, to a point. The official line is that Healy is tired of using irony and postmodernism as a shield, that he was aiming for greater sincerity and focus this time while continuing to opine on the intricacies of the 21st century. “I think I’ve realized what I’m doing: I’m writing about how we communicate interpersonally in the modern age – mediated by the Internet,” he shared. New York Times. “Love, loss, addiction. I always do. Every other record has been kind of like, ‘Love! And me! And this! And that!’ I think To be funny is the first time where I’m kind of like, ‘OK, right, love. Let’s do love.’” The album isn’t single-mindedly fixated on that, but romance animates a large percentage of these songs, putting a bittersweet spin on these songs since Healy reportedly split from their supposed inspiration FKA Twigs this summer after two years dating.
Many of these love songs are among the most direct in the 1975 catalog. Early singles “Happiness” and “I’m In Love With You” – livid vamps that sound very much like they emerged from jams where Healy practices his overlines , as he surfs the unchanging current – is among several tracks built around one-line refrains repeated ad nauseam. The funky, bubbly “Happiness,” a sort of thought exercise about Talking Heads coming of age nowadays, comes across more as an emotion than a song. It’s grown on me in the weeks since its release, but its open sizzle pales in comparison to something as edgy and dynamic as the spring-loaded “UGH!” from the 2016s I like it when you sleep because you are so beautiful yet so oblivious to it. Sometimes the less-is-more approach is effective, as on the overwhelming “About You,” a magnificent swell Attention baby recall centered on the question “Do you think I forgot about you?” Still, a chorus that’s literally just “I’m in love with you” is a waste of Healy’s talents. Not every song needs to be a thesis and not every album an epic, but there’s a fine line between mature restraint and undercooked songwriting.
Fortunately, Being funny in a foreign language only partially adheres to the band’s self-imposed limitations, and tends to be much more nuanced and engaging than “I’m In Love With You.” There’s no streamlining of Matty Healy’s mind, so those who come to the 1975 albums to indulge in his indulgent lyrics will find a lot to love and/or hate here. Healy remains at his most potent when blurring the lines between excruciating navel-gazing and savvy social commentary, as on lead single “Part Of The Band,” an orchestral new wave bloodletting that unfolds in one of many instances of Bon Iver- worship on the album. (And why wouldn’t they worship the band that re-popularized and re-contextualized so much of the ’80s cheese that has become their stock and trade?) Against some of 1975’s most wonderfully graceful music to date, Healy sticks and plugs. , flashing its way through some of his most loaded and daring lyrics, climaxing in a verse so quotable that I feel compelled to preserve it here in its entirety, months after its release, to see , what kinds of nonverbal sounds and eye movements it elicits from you:
I know some fancy baristas for a vaccinista tote bag
Sitting in the east on their communist keister
Writes about their releases
“I like my men like I like my coffee
Full of soy milk and so sweet, it won’t offend anyone”
While you stain the sides The nation
This is the Matty Healy I know and love! He can talk all he wants about writing uncomplicated love songs, but the kind of over-the-top singles-as-essays — the ones that communicate something real and lived-in about modern culture but also serve as Healy push-buttons, worded to challenge the boundaries of good taste in a way that reflects the band’s musical aesthetic—are central to the appeal of the 1975s. Healy must know that too, or he wouldn’t have put more of them through Being funny in a foreign language. The album’s first and last tracks are similarly entangled in self-referential poetic prose, and they are also among the album’s best.
The group’s latest eponymous album opening begins To be funny with hyperactive, possibility-laden piano chords so obviously inspired by LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” that Healy’s original lyrics included the scrapped line “You owe James Murphy 20% of this song, your career and the whole idea/ Of living in the city with a whiff of fear.” The words that came up include “thicc,” “Qanon,” and “Adderall” rhymed with “Aperol,” plus this sequence that could serve as a summary of this band’s entire deal: “I feel apathetic after scrolling through damn/ I think I’ve got a bone, but I can’t really tell.” Healy eventually takes it upon herself to “make an aesthetic out of not doing well and mining all the parts of you that you think you can sell,” before returning to a line that jibes with his new older and wiser attitude: “I’m sorry if you’re alive and you’re 17.” Like most of the best songs from 1975, it’s impeccably constructed, personal to an almost alienating degree, almost as thoughtful as it thinks it is, and will have the band’s haters miming the jackoff hand gesture.
Even better is closer “When We Are Together,” a breezy and understated acoustic ballad filled with banjo and fiddle that smuggles in impressive amounts of overdubbing around the chorus: “The only time I feel like I might get better / is when we are together.” It works more like an ellipsis than an end drawing, and it’s so gentle and beautiful that you can easily miss how much is crammed into the lyrics. Speculation that the song is about Twigs is apparently supported by a reference to creative competition between two lovers with huge egos. There’s also this line referencing Healy’s departure from Twitter after his tweet about the death of George Floyd, along with 1975’s our-generation-is-fucked anthem “Love It If We Made It,” struck various onlookers as tone-deaf: “It was poorly handled / The day we both got cancelled/ Because I’m a racist and you’re some kind of slag.”
“When We Are Together” is not the only song where Healy mentions being “soft-cancelled” (as he has referred to the experience in interviews). That is the only one where he views the buzzword “gaslighting” with skepticism, although he has expressed similar sentiments in the past (see: “Honesty is scary”). He also sings quite a bit about masturbation on the album, a topic that rivals his obsession with the way we relate to each other online. All this plus his admiration for a media sphere inclusive Red scare, Joe Rogan and various Substacks may raise your eyebrows all the way past your hairline, but who can really be surprised to see this particular public figure gravitate towards edgelords, provocateurs and self-proclaimed freethinkers? It’s all part of the ultra-current, unsettlingly personal ethos that made 1975 one of the most polarizing and fascinating bands of their era. They’re still finding new ways to creep into songwriting, so inspired that I’m compelled to follow along. Much of the fun of following this band is wrapped up in the tightrope act.
still, To be funny has plenty to offer the hypothetical fan who wishes Healy would play it a little more straight, if only a little. The relentlessly spunky but lyrically dark “Looking For Somebody (To Love),” the most obviously Antonoff-added song for its similarity to Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark,” seems to find sympathy for a bullied and rejected mass shooter , while also criticizing his thought process and the society that produced him. The similarly lively and uptempo “Wintering”, so very cheerful that I might even describe it as zipperis a backdoor Christmas carol full of familial tenderness and the repeated promise, “I’ll be home on the 23rd.” On the slow jam front, the rootsy love song “All I Need To Hear” channels Wilco in piano ballad mode, “Human Too” blossoms into some tasteful jazzy downtempo hip-hop, and the howling “Oh Caroline” instantly enters the electric-piano-and-fenced-drums hall of fame, with references to suicide and “getting cucked” along the way.
As it turns out, the new 1975 is not so different from the old 1975. I find it hard to imagine Being funny in a foreign language will be anyone’s favorite album by this band, and I don’t expect many people to switch sides in the great 1975 debate after hearing it. At first, after getting used to these guys doing mostly as an operating principle, I was disappointed by the album’s relatively limited scope. The more I live with it, the more it wins me over, one track at a time. Every 1975 album has its hits and misses, and what this one lacks in absurd bombast, it makes up for in a lower percentage of failed experiments. Before To be funny I had no category for a tight, focused, alt-killer no-filler album from 1975. It’s not, but I think now they have such a release in them, and I’d love it if they did.