Before Matty Healy could go forth and do battle with the world again, he had to get the small matter of doing battle with himself out of the way first. The 17 songs on The 1975's new album I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it give some hints as to what that battle involves. But really, who knows what goes on in Matty's head? Confidence, anguished self-doubt, morbid introspection, and ceaseless self-laceration surely play a part; as do arrogance, urgency, passion, panic. Add to that ambition, exhaustion, elation, and dejection. A member of the band's inner circle has remarked: "Matthew has what every great frontman has: a massive ego and extremely low self-worth. That's great for a frontman. For a human being's mental health, though, it's debilitating. His confidence is sky-high but wafer-thin. He has amazing self-belief and resilience, and a huge work ethic, but all of that is shadowed by a darker side."
When Matty sings "If I'm lost, then how can I find myself?" on the new track "If I Believe You," his fans will identify at once. The relationship between The 1975 and its fanbase is built on an empathic, almost telepathic understanding. It helps explain why the band's gigs have the fervor of a revivalist meeting; and why they remain conscious of the vital part their fans play in everything they do. The thought of being aloof pop icons inaccessible behind a velvet rope is anathema to them.
"We've got fans, and then we've got fans," Matty says. "Why would you want to feel above that? So much of the power in what we're trying to do comes from their emotional involvement in and understanding of the way I feel things. I've never dramatized or fetishized the reality of addiction or flirted with the idea of suicide and subjects like that, but nor have I shirked them, and I think that's why they relate to us. I'm convinced that what people really want to invest in when it comes to music is something they can genuinely identify with. Otherwise, what? It's a backdrop to our lives? Music is more than that. It's everything."
That attitude informs every note, word, and texture on the new album. It is as if everything the band has ever done, every setback and triumph they've experienced, has led up to this point. From the opening bars of "The 1975" (a reworked version of the track that opened their gold-certified, self-titled debut album), to the rough-demo acoustica of "She Lays Down," to the monster earworms "Love Me," "She's American," "The Sound," and "This Must Be My Dream," to the ineffably beautiful ballads "Change of Heart," "Somebody Else," and "Paris," to the fragile and poignant "Nana" (which Matty wrote about his grandmother's death), to the troubled self-inquiry of "Please Be Naked," "Lostmyhead," and the title track, to the reckless candor of "The Ballad of Me and My Brain" and "Loving Someone," the album is a journey of twists and turns. Its unorthodox but brilliantly realized sequencing - and that insanely long album title - are thrilling affirmations of what makes The 1975 so defiantly individual and steadfastly indifferent to the tired old formulas of the pop machine.
School friends Matty, Adam Hann, George Daniel, and Ross MacDonald formed The 1975 in the English town of Wilmslow, south of Manchester, in 2002. Upon emerging ten years later with the Facedown EP, it was instantly clear that this was a band that was going to be controversial, even problematic, for some. Their sound was unashamedly glamorous (one of Matty's favorite words), the lyrics heart-on-sleeve, spill-your-guts confessional, and the music brazenly diverse. In their frontman, they had a singer who saw live performance as a precipice just asking to be jumped from. Matty's head might be a mix of impenetrable fog and startling lucidity, but he has always been totally clear about the primacy of unabashed charisma and fierce commitment in the makeup of a lead singer. Never apologize has long been the band's mantra.
When The 1975's debut entered the UK album chart at No. 1 in September 2013, it cemented in their minds the sense that, if the band were to mean anything, they had to stick to their guns, trust their instincts, and resist outside interference. Ten years of raised hopes, broken promises, and false starts had hardened the four friends, and now, with the prize suddenly within their grasp, they weren't about to change tack. That old "they sound too different from one song to the next" response had been thrown back at their detractors after all; and, as the saying goes, he who laughs last laughs longest. As Matty says with real fire, such attitudes strike the band's generation as prehistoric. "The historic adherence to one type of anything is so pointless," he adds. "My generation consumes music in a completely non-linear way, and we reflect that because that's how we create. Fifteen-year-olds are listening to A$AP Rocky but also to something way over on the other side from that. Why create one type of music when nobody consumes one type of music?"
That's not an official manifesto, but as I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It demonstrates, it could be. Who else but The 1975 would follow the pop-perfect FM-radio groove and arch, self-knowing lyrics of "She's American" with "If I Believe You"? The latter song billows with gospel choirs, cascading harp, and haunting trumpet: a devotional hymn of tormented, existential inquiry. More cautious bands would have buried "If I Believe You" at the end of the album. Not The 1975, and they're right; placed as it is, the song is devastating precisely because of the contrast.
The band's beloved '80s sonic palette dominates the new songs, with echoes throughout of Peter Gabriel, Scritti Politti, INXS, Hall & Oates, and Tears For Fears; but there are other reference points that darken the brew - both "Lostmyhead" and the title track have a Sigur RÃ³s-like expansiveness and complexity - testament, as is the whole album, to the role played by George Daniel, a sonic architect of extraordinary inventiveness and ambition, with whom Matty wrote the album. As Matty is quick to admit, recording sessions were often fraught and always intense, though they were joyous, too. In the early stages of recording, both he and George were, he says, "in different ways, in a very bad place." Years of solid touring had taken their toll, and there were moments where the pair struggled with the burden of creating a follow-up to their debut.
"George and I are like brothers, we had never left each other's side," Matty says. "We complete each other. And my problems at that time separated us a little bit. It catalysed the troubles that he had and solidified all of the issues that I was having in return, and it became this really dark time. And born out of that was 'The Ballad of Me and My Brain.' But the distance that we travelled away from each other turned out to be a really important part of the album."
Lyrically, the album reflects the upheavals, triumphs, traumas, and losses in Matty's life over the past three years. His lyrics are alternately catty, tender, merciless, cocksure, self-recriminatory, pleading, narcissistic and remorseful - a distillation of the conversation that goes on unceasingly in his head. "I think our fans understand the vulnerability because it's very much their vulnerability as well," he says. "They recognize this weird loner who flirts with these things and gets it wrong. I used to think, 'If I'm successful I am going to be able to go into all of these cool rooms, and I'll just be one of them,' but I'm not. I'm still me and still an idiot and I still get nervous about stuff and change my personality a little bit to talk to somebody new."
Matty, Ross, Adam, and George have made an album of breath-taking scope, ambition, depth and beauty. It's an album that will come to define 2016, and be looked back on as a game-changer. On one level, Matty sort of knows this. For him to 100 percent believe it, though, well, that wouldn't be Matt Healy? The question is, would we have it any other way?