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Being Funny in a Foreign Language finds The 1975 losing touch with their reality

"Being Funny in a Foreign Language"

Release date: 14 October 2022
5/10
The 1975 - Being Funny In A Foreign Language cover
10 October 2022, 13:00 Written by Claire Biddles
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With squinted eyes, The 1975’s career reflects the expected trajectory for a rock band in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The plucky small-town beginnings, the glossy LA makeover, the heroin addiction and recovery, the state-of-the-union address, the overblown failure. And now, five albums in - just on schedule - the Return To Their Roots.

Each of these previous milestones hid a more esoteric reality behind their tropey facades, and Being Funny in a Foreign Language also barely resembles what it claims to be. Announced with grave black and white imagery, the album is framed as a move from sonic opulence to a classic rock sound. In actuality, half of the record sounds like their previous, maximalist output, and half of it sounds much more like a meta, studio-polished idea of authenticity than anything actually ‘real’ - all studio chatter and tuning strings. In many ways this a relief, but it does prompt wider questions about how in control (or not) the band - and particularly bandleader Matty Healy - are of their own vision, and how much they understand how it is being consumed by those outside their famously tight-knit circle.

The now-traditional self-titled introductory track is usually a good indicator of the band’s current aesthetic, but here it’s a red herring, at least musically. An undeniably thrilling start, its centre is a minimalist, Cageian piano motif that acts as an ever-increasing magnetic pull, dragging every instrument in the studio into its orbit. Lyrically it’s a mix of latter day Healy hot topics (the American Dream, QAnon, liberalism) and a defeatist update of 2018 single “Give Yourself a Try”. In the midst of the track’s modern-day overwhelm, Healy plays the wide-eyed earnest boy, passing on his apologetic wisdom (“I’m sorry about my twenties I was learning the ropes… I’m sorry if you’re living and you’re seventeen”) and it’s genuinely moving. But as the album progresses, it feels more and more like a lift-off for a great destination that the band can’t reach.

The album’s first half will be familiar to fans, not least because most of the songs have already been released as singles. Although the songs are largely solid, there’s a recurring sense of deja vu. “Happiness” is the kind of glitzy, late-80s sophistipop that The 1975 have been churning out near-perfect pastiches of since “Heart Out”, but which is getting repetitive almost ten years on. Perhaps if it was a throwaway add-on rather than one of the album’s better tracks, it would be easier to accept. “Oh Caroline” shares the Californian sunset mood of “She’s American”, but with less imagination and specificity. Healy seems to acknowledge this in the lyrics (“I’ve tried to find another name a thousand times/But the only one that rhymes is ‘Oh Caroline’”) - but laziness can’t be excused with a wink to the audience.

Healy’s lyrics are one of the album’s major issues, continuing his long-term problem of devaluing his own lyrical strengths. There’s some exceptional moments here that show his innate understanding of (failures of) communication in relationships - but they’re greatly outnumbered by rhyming-dictionary nonsense. The dire family soap opera “Wintering”, one of too many mid-tempo indie songs seemingly leftover from 2020’s Notes on a Conditional Form, attempts specificity while actually sounding so bizarre it’s almost dada-esque (“Alex is a sculptor and Olivia’s been a vegan since 10/Vin wears dresses whilst Debbie coalesces in a fleece that doesn’t work”). Compare this to the characters that populate songs like “Paris”, economic on detail but perfectly evocative, and the downward slide is clear. Ultimately Healy has created his own standards to be held to. Where is the transcendence that so many of us have built lives around?

Like Notes…, Being Funny in a Foreign Language is rooted in contemporary culture, but contrasted with the deeply-felt statements on third album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (“I Like America, And America Likes Me”, for instance) it’s basic. The aggressively upbeat “Looking For Somebody (To Love)” draws a satisfying irony with its conceptual and musical contrasts, but ultimately comes to the not-quite-mind-blowing conclusion that entitled male violence is the result of desperation for love. Instead of a resonant reflection of contemporary life, these songs are a collage of its surface noise: endless references to cancellation, cucking, being ‘thicc’, but barely any personal connection or engagement with meaning.

An exception is a line in the otherwise banal final track “When We Are Together”, which overall is disappointing as its set-up - an unlikeable couple at the tail-end of a relationship - should be total bait for Healy’s best work. It’s all faux-clever until he admits that “I thought we were fighting/But it seems I was gaslighting you/I didn’t know that it had its own word” - ostensibly daft and throwaway, but revelatory of layers of ego and unknowable space between two people.

The second half of the album most closely adheres to its central idea of an unadorned band in a studio, but perhaps more because of stylistic markers than actual sound. “All I Need to Hear” and “Human Too” are solidly written soul-ish ballads, but, again, are inessential in the context of the band’s best work. Tucked away towards the end is “About You” - an album highlight, and not coincidentally one of the only songs that doesn’t call back to the band’s previous work. The 1975 have consistently achieved alchemy through their own versions of other bands’ aesthetics, and lucky for us, they’re now giving Cocteau Twins a go: swirling, night sky-wide sheets of synths and reverb, matched with spacey, whimsical romance (“We get married in our heads/Something to do whilst we try to recall how we met”). Healy’s voice sounds gorgeous in a lower register, in contrast to the beautifully girlish guest verse from Carly Holt, guitarist Adam Hann’s wife. It’s wide-open and luscious, but bittersweet. Were all the other attempts at something new scrapped in favour of retreads, or in service to the album’s half-arsed mission statement?

Perhaps in focusing inwards, on an attempt to sound simply like a band in a studio - putting aside whether that has been achieved or not - Being Funny in a Foreign Language sees The 1975 lose touch with the reality they are usually so skilled at reflecting. Ever one to over-intellectualise, Healy is wrapped up in so many repeating layers of fame and meaning and memes and buzzwords that any real meaning is out of reach. Even the justification of the album’s title (“I think that if everybody was able to be funny in a foreign language, it would probably save the world”) is an attempt at some core truth that is in fact utterly meaningless.

The ever-increasing circle of ‘yes’ around the band is also becoming more and more disruptive to their progress. Interestingly, this is the first time Healy and co-producer George Daniel have let an outside party into their team - but in celebrity producer Jack Antonoff, they’ve just found another reflection of their worldview, so much so that it’s hard to tell what difference he may have made. The band sound more relaxed than ever before, perhaps because of stylistic intentions, but also due to a lack of stakes in the music. Everyone around Healy - his band, his label, most critics - agree with him, but he’s undeniably at his best when he’s a little desperate, a little eager to impress. “There’s no danger in this music” read a critic’s quote ironically placed in the video for “The Sound” way back in 2016. In 2022, The 1975 aren’t able to prove this accusation wrong.

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