Three reviews of May releases – the pop/rock of Manchester’s The 1975, the synth-pop of Canada’s Carly Rae Jepsen, and the Americana of Alabama’s Jason Isbell. I’ve already a fan of all three artists, hence the quicker than usual turnaround.
Notes on a Conditional Form
The 1975 have enjoyed critical acclaim but have struggled to capture the attention of music nerds, perhaps due to nerds’ suspicion of anything popular. The Manchester pop/rock quartet have topped the UK charts with each one of the four albums to date, an amazing achievement for a guitar band in this era.
Front-man Matty Healy enjoys most of the attention. His extroverted personality and lyrical vitality (“I know it gets hard sometimes/Making out with people that you don’t like” is the most memorable line on this record), overshadow what a strong and versatile vocalist he is. The group’s secret weapon though, is drummer George Daniel, whose production skills give the band access to a wide range of stylistic territory while maintaining a consistent aesthetic.
Usually bands produce their best work when they make tight, 40-minute albums. The 1975 break that rule – their weakest album to date is their shortest, their debut where they largely stick to INXS inspired guitar pop. On the contrary, their best albums – 2016’s I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It and this one – sprawl out and explore many ideas. Notes on a Conditional Form is their most diverse album yet – the jarring transition from the ambient ‘The 1975’ to the hardcore punk of ‘People’ in the first two tracks is merely the beginning. The two songs form an effective protest – a Greta Thunberg monologue on climate change is followed by the anguished millennial apathy of ‘People’.
Previously, there’s been a strong 1980s aesthetic in The 1975’s work, but here it’s only present in the glorious anthem ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’. Instead they band are largely raiding the 1990s – ‘There Because She Goes’ perfectly captures early 1990s shoegaze, there’s a little bit of Oasis in Healy’s vocal on ‘Me & You Together Song’, while ‘Playing On My Mind’ is angsty acoustic pop. Phoebe Bridgers sings a verse on the conservative-baiting ‘Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America’, there’s a house/gospel hybrid on ‘Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied’, and electronica on ‘Shiny Collarbone’. Even though the occasional instrumental meanders, Notes is always able to pull listeners straight back with memorable tunes like the closing ‘Guys’, Healy’s tributes to his band-mates.
They’re often underappreciated by music nerds, but The 1975 are demanding respect with their sheer ambition – an eighty minute album with few weak spots is a towering achievement.
Carly Rae Jepsen
Dedicated: Side B
Like The 1975, Canadian pop artist Carly Rae Jepsen made her critical breakthrough mining the sounds of the 1980s. Despite a terrific sequence of recent work, Jepsen’s never recaptured the mainstream audience she enjoyed with the huge 2012 hit ‘Call Me Maybe’. Instead she makes well-constructed pop songs with huge hooks for a smaller, but dedicated, fan-base.
Jepsen is prolific, and she wrote around 200 songs for Dedicated. As with the previous release cycle, Jepsen released 12 Dedicated outtakes as Dedicated: Side B. Like Dedicated, Side B feels like a move away from the girl next door image of ‘Call Me Maybe’ – a sexy cover shot and lyrics that move away from the obsessive infatuation of her earlier work. Dedicated Side B is impressively cohesive for a collection of outtakes – at 44 minutes and 12, generally strong, tracks, it plays like a proper studio album.
The chilled and sophisticated pop of ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Comeback’ are some of Jepsen’s best gentle moments to date. Producer Jack Antonoff is promoted to backing vocals on the latter. Jepsen’s stock-in-trade is explosive, euphoric choruses, and the best payoff is on the soaring ‘Solo’. At one point, Jepsen planned Dedicated as an Abba-influenced album of classy disco, and vestiges remain in ‘Summer Love’ and ‘This Love Isn’t Crazy’. The over-simplicity of ‘Let’s Sort The Whole Thing Out’ grates quickly, while I haven’t yet decided if closer ‘I Don’t Hate California’ is an interesting diversion or a noble failure.
Bright and breezy, Dedicated Side B feels a little unsubstantial in places, but like every Jepsen project since her critical breakthrough with Emotion she’s full of enthusiastic fun.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Former Drive-By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell took a few albums to find his feet as a solo artist. Showing an aptitude for writing on early Truckers songs like ‘Outfit’, it took until 2013’s Southeastern for Isbell to deliver a satisfying solo record. Reunions, his third record since Southeastern, shows the incompatibility in Isbell’s primary talents. He’s a terrific lead guitarist, but his many of his best solo songs are honest and acoustic. The mix on Reunions of acoustic material and rockers throws up an inconsistent track-listing, but there are enough examples of top-drawer songwriting to sustain it. Isbell is supported by his usual team; producer Dave Cobb and the 400 Unit (which includes his wife Amanda Shires on fiddle and backing vocals). David Crosby drops in to provide backing vocals on several tracks.
Reunions opens in my least favourite Isbell mode – ‘What’ve I Done To Help’ is long and repetitive. Isbell’s best on Reunions when he’s singing about his family – closing song ‘Letting You Go’, about his daughter growing up, is irresistibly heartfelt, while ‘Overseas’ successfully folds intimate lyrics into a hard rocking song. ‘River’ is another gorgeous acoustic piece, but the rockers like ‘Running With Our Eyes Closed’ and ‘It Gets Easier’ lack memorable choruses.
Isbell remains an extremely accomplished songwriter at his best, delivering the same timeless material as prime Bruce Springsteen. Like 2017’s The Nashville Sound, Reunions mixes terrific songs with passable ones, resulting in a worthwhile but uneven effort.