The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form (Dirty Hit/Polydor)

Alternative pop is often marketed as an ’80s revival — somehow, the perception of historical homage is supposed to make pop music more respectable. Although most of the artists’ musical devices trace back to late ’70s and early ’80s disco, by now they’ve developed into their own separate musical lexicon. When will it be time for the ’80s revival revival? The albums reviewed below represent different ways of interpreting the gestures of a previous generation. 

The 1975: Notes on a Conditional Form (Dirty Hit/Polydor)

From their yearning irony to their cultural hyper-literacy, from their studied melange of voguish influences to their feckless atmospheric meanderings, the 1975 epitomize sophomoric pretension. Yet by going so outrageously overboard in all the aforementioned categories, this album is a synthetic delight. 

This is their fourth straight album to look terrible on paper while it enchants in practice. It’s thus clear that the English art-pop band has invented some novel formula for excess, for committing fully to their ideas, no matter how daft. Their dilettantish musical range shouldn’t cohere; neither should Matty Healy’s lyrical conceits, which express a sort of preening poststructuralist chic, reflected by titles like Notes on a Conditional Form and their previous A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships — they should call their next album Deconstructing the Boy Band Paradigm.

Since their softcore ballads, guitar explosions, instrumental interludes, and various other genre exercises are all united by a consistent electronic textural palette (they favor pale, translucent keyboard sounds, influenced by house and fusion) the album clicks, as everything sits in a bed of percolating static. It’s as if the music emanates in disjointed waves through mediated digital channels; they’re not optimistic about this technological plight, but they reach out with empathy to those stuck in their same virtual reality. Healy’s references to politics, pop art, philosophy, and so on work mainly as erotic posturing; whatever his many witticisms mean, they sparkle thanks to how ardently he tries to impress you. The resulting songs are shifting, unpredictable compendia of glittering surface pleasures.

Their longest and messiest album, Notes on a Conditional Form is grounded by two main bangers: “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know),” in which their brashest singalong chorus and most shameless saxophone solo expiate the pain of yet another online relationship, and “People,” whose barbed guitar riff disrupts and enriches what could have been an ordinary protest song. But the album abounds with weird little moments that stick with you, as the murmured trop-house hook in “Frail State of Mind,” the sped-up Christopher Cross sample in “Bagsy Not in Net,” and the sugary forward rush of “Me & You Together Song” all contribute to the immaculate gloss.

Independently, everything about this band is ridiculous; as a whole, they celebrate ridiculousness. If they keep going at it full tilt, they’ll have an auspicious absurdist future ahead of them. 

Haim, Women in Music Pt. III (Columbia)

Haim: Women in Music Pt. III (Columbia)

Expert pastiche artists, Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim have established their own model of what a 21st-century rock band should sound like: plastic, malleable, endlessly recombinant. Their third album rocks with precise caution.

Haim have popularized an array of cultural touchstones once considered too uncool for alternative rock, weaving together snippets of country, soft-rock, acoustic Joni Mitchell, Balearic house, Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night, and New Order’s Technique — and, at this point, they’ve digested producer Rostam Batmanglij’s former band, Vampire Weekend, too. Others may disagree or hear different sources; the impression of having absorbed a rich synthesis of influences is itself the point. Their songs ring out like memories of pop songs past, forgotten jewels you may have heard on the radio a long time ago, only to discover the song actually came out recently.

While they’ve always aimed for intricacy, this album breathes with airy, unassuming ease, as buttery rhythm guitars wrap themselves around disco basslines and drum machines ring out through textured smoke clouds. Each song boasts a small, pungent hook to distinguish it, some synthesizer twirl, or some especially delicate vocal harmony. They’ve succeeded in refining their craft to a new degree of smoothness and calm. That’s the problem, though — their sources were all more vulgar, more sentimental, more willing to look silly; this music lacks tension. Having mastered a synthesis they invented, they take few risks not permitted by the strict boundaries of formalism.

The most striking songs are those that examine from some odd angle the state of being single and on the prowl: “I Know Alone,” whose melancholy chorus of sighs contradicts the loneliness expressed lyrically, suggesting the sisters are commiserating in their shared solitude; or the slinky “Gasoline,” which serenades a mercurial beloved with deceptive insouciance. Elsewhere, boilerplate like “Don’t Wanna” recalls not one particular song you can’t place but 10 others that all sound the same, defeating the point of their project.

They’ve realized their pastel essence, but they’re stuck in their comfort zone, sumptuous as it may be. 

Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure? (PMR/Friends Keep Secrets/Interscope)

Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure? (PMR/Friends Keep Secrets/Interscope)

In the past, Jessie Ware has specialized in a sort of smooth lounge electronica, luxuriating in her smoky voice’s slow burn. This is intended as her dance album, and it’s indeed bouncier than her previous music — although dance music has long since evolved past the various ’80s post-disco trends preserved cryogenically here. 

Ware alludes to disco mainly through winking references; her synthesized strings and exhortations to get on the floor amount to disco-themed filigrees, draped over the bones of her latest batch of torch songs without being integrated fully. Since 2012 she has pursued a generic midtempo melancholy, crooning romantic laments and confessions of lust from a shadowy corner of the bar. The beats on this album are no faster but are far richer than usual, as she and a phalanx of UK pop producers arrange a sumptuous hall of mirrors; the drum machines, steadily thumping basslines, and endless layers of keyboard polish are mixed so lavishly that the creamy swirl overwhelms, as do the breathy overdubs that multiply her voice.

Among many opulent confections, the sweetest is “Save a Kiss,” which isn’t a song so much as a bag of recycled tricks and mannerisms — the bubbling keyboard preset, the theatrical violin hook, and the vocoded murmurs between verses all announce themselves as established devices. Many other songs would likely falter on an actual dance floor; while there’s always an abundance of ear candy, always a sugary squeak or a well-timed gasp to savor, such textural extravagance impedes disco’s momentum.

As an homage to past disco-ers, who danced longer, loved harder, and drank bubblier champagne than any subsequent subculture, the gesture is touching, revealing the extent to which classic disco’s erotic musical strategies remains in use. Yet simply by replicating those strategies so faithfully, Ware commits to them only halfway. If the point is to reclaim the last party music during the AIDS crisis for COVID-era listeners, some modernizing element is needed, something to clarify that she’s looking back through the lens of historical memory, that old ghosts haven’t gone away. Instead, her genre exercise displays the facility of escapism. 

She’s crafted the sturdiest of retro moves, but for all its fluffy sonic layering the album feels one-dimensional. It’s hard to dance when nostalgia has frozen you. 

Tame Impala, The Slow Rush (Interscope/Fiction)

Tame Impala: The Slow Rush (Interscope/Fiction)

One of the more unlikely indie artists to achieve commercial success over the past decade, multi-instrumentalist and one-man band Kevin Parker has gradually refined his signature hybrid of psychedelic rock and ambient electronica. This album balances uneasily between both modes without tipping over.

What puzzles about Tame Impala is how ingredients that would sound soothing in isolation combine to produce music so stilted and gooey. Parker’s glistening layers of synthesizer fuzz multiply and refract, creating an illusion of endless depth, as electronic flutes (“Borderline”), funk-adjacent basslines (“Lost in Yesterday”), and house piano chords (“Breathe Deeper”) lend variety to the mix without disrupting the hypnotic flow; the songs blur together into a shimmering aural collage. He doesn’t sing so much as exhale melodies, letting clouds of electronic mist waft passively from his open mouth and nose.

It should make exquisite background music, but there’s something oleaginous about it that doesn’t smoothen the way it’s supposed to. Since Parker insists on maintaining a semblance of coherent rock songcraft — with verses, choruses, and legible harmonic progressions — the songs are neither smooth enough to immerse in nor crisp enough to focus on; it’s as if he’s trying to communicate some underlying meaning just out of reach. As with Bon Iver, who garbles his apparent folk ballads through incomprehensible vocal filters, Parker’s music inspires the question of whether he’s disrupting these rock songs as a calculated strategy or just performing them ineptly. Coupled with his wispy falsetto, this music suggests anxiety — about language, metaphysics, heartbreak, or maybe just the decreasing relevance of rock as a form in the 21st century. But he can’t specify further than that, and so whatever hints of desperation or melancholy do emerge disappear instantly into the psychedelic molasses. 

Through devotional concentration, he’s uncovered the difficulty of saying something about inarticulateness. Enacting it is easier, but less useful. 

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...