The single finest piece of art released amid the COVID-19 pandemic—with apologies to Dua Lipa, Normal People, Rodham, Scoob!, and Capone—is a song called “I Wonder What’s Inside Your Butthole.” It was written and performed by an 8-year-old girl named Jolee, and shared on Twitter in early May by her mother, the actress Lisa Rieffel; it is 20 seconds long and yet conjures up a whole universe (of things that might be inside your butthole).
My kid wrote a song called,— Lisa Shmeesa (@LisaRieffel) May 2, 2020
“I Wonder What’s Inside your Butthole” Quite honestly, it slaps. pic.twitter.com/A65m6XeZ2r
Amazing. “Maybe there is astronauts and maybe there is aliens / All inside your butthole.” The global pandemic anthem we need, now more than ever, at a time like this. The rousing hook (“What’s inside your butthole / I always want to know”) sounds so much like Angry Young Man–era Elvis Costello that some joker went ahead and recorded an eerily precise Elvis Costello cover version. Which joins the country version, the pop-punk version, the indie-folk version, the Cure version, and the dance remix. Add enough of these together, in fact—let’s say 81 minutes’ worth, the more stylistically incongruous the better—and you essentially have the new 1975 record.
Yes, Notes on a Conditional Form, the megalomaniacal English arena-pop quartet’s fourth album out Friday, is slightly too long to fit on a standard compact disc, if that means anything to you. (Doubt it.) Verily, it is a genre-sprawling extraterrestrial proctology exam of the soul, its sound veering from thrash punk to electro pop to mid-’90s alt rock to late-’10s emo country, its mood veering from self-loathing sadness to self-glorifying sadness, which is a wider emotional spectrum than it first appears. Listening to the whole thing in one sitting is like entering (and losing) a hot dog eating contest.
This is not a complaint. Frontman Matty Healy, a confirmed “I Wonder What’s Inside Your Butthole” stan, is perhaps the most mesmerizing rock star of his rock-star-averse era, a philosopher-narcissist with electrifying tales of embarrassed decadence and romanticized depravity. I think about the line “Collapse my veins wearing beautiful shoes” a lot, a joyous refrain (there’s a choir) from an alarmingly jaunty synth-pop song about heroin addiction called “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You),” one of the big singles off the band’s stupendous last album, 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships.
I should tell you up front that I prefer at least three songs on Online Relationships—also including the critic-bait angsty quote machine “Love It If We Made It” and the power ballad “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)”—to any of the (yeesh) 22 songs on Notes on a Conditional Form. Nor does this new record, fearlessly boundless as it may be, flow with quite the elegance or audacity of 2016’s INXS-core odyssey I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful and So Unaware of It. (Yeesh.) But personal preference hardly seems to matter in the face of a record this overwhelming, this bafflingly engrossing. I am grateful it exists, even if this world proves not quite big enough for the two of us.
For example: Each 1975 album begins with a lovely eponymous ambient instrumental, a throat-clearing indulgence, the first of innumerable flexes. But the one on Notes on a Conditional Form just so happens to soundtrack a five-minute speech about climate change from 17-year-old rock-star activist Greta Thunberg. It’s like the way Fugazi concerts used to start with a quick speech from a community organizer.
“So everyone out there, it is now time for civil disobedience,” she concludes, having stressed the existential necessity of preventing a 1.5-degree increase in global warming. “It is time to rebel.” And whoosh, cut to “People,” the loudest and screamiest and pleasantly dumbest 1975 track yet, wherein the fellas (including drummer-producer George Daniel, guitarist Adam Hann, and bassist Ross MacDonald) get as close to sounding like Fugazi as I am comfortable with them getting as Healy howls lines like, “Well my generation wanna fuck Barack Obama living in a sauna with legal marijuana.” It’s a tough time for everybody.
Then, another lovely throat-clearing ambient jam called “The End (Music for Cars),” with no ecological speech this time, but sheesh, it takes a full 10 minutes for what feels like The Real Album to begin. But “Frail State of Mind”—a gentle and anxiety-ridden dubstep ballad that begins with Healy singing, “Go outside? / Seems unlikely”—is worth the wait, and establishes a nice rhythm between folktronica hush and guitar-god bravado, between introversion and a remarkably insular sort of extroversion. There is a folksy song about awkward socializing called “The Birthday Party” that name-drops the ethically fraught emo-country band Pinegrove; there is a crunchy, banjo-dusted lope called “Roadkill” that sounds exactly like Pinegrove. But let’s see any other frontman for any band anywhere try to pull off lyrics like this:
Well, I pissed myself on the Texan intersection
With George spilling things all over his bag
And I took shit for being quiet during the election
Maybe that’s fair, but I’m a busy guy
Healy is a primo Did He Just Say That?! guy. “I can’t remember when we met / Because she didn’t have a top on,” is how he kicks off an ecstatically jangly rocker called “Me & You Together Song.” Got it. “I never fucked in a car, I was lying / I do it on my bed, lying down, not trying,” is how he kicks off the first verse on a moody electro-gospel plaint called “Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied,” disavowing the fucking-on-heroin introductory line of “Love It If We Made It.” Got it. (Also, on this new tune, the choir is back, except now it’s singing, “Life feels like a lie / I need something to be true / Is there anybody out there?”)
Let’s just say that the best song on this record is called “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” a shattered bedroom-folk duet with Phoebe Bridgers that kicks off with Healy announcing, “I’m in love with Jesus Christ / He’s so nice,” and peaks with Bridgers singing, with quavering earnestness, the following:
I’m in love with the girl next door
Her name is Claire
Nice when she comes round to call
Then masturbate the second she’s not there
It sounds profound when she says it. The spiritual and sensual whiplash of Notes on a Conditional Form has a soothing aspect, from the slinky Temptations sample driving the R&B-adjacent “Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy)” to the distorted shoegaze whoosh of “Then Because She Goes.” Very late in the game (track 16!), you are rewarded for fending off various detours and interludes with “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know),” one of the album’s relative few gigantic arena-pop anthems, with yet another cheeky opening line (“I see her online / All the time / I’m trying not to stare ‘down there’ while she talks about her tough time”) and a chorus of “Maybe I would like you better if you took off your clothes.” There’s a saxophone solo, too. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
What’s most striking about Healy’s antics this time, though, is how earnest they are. He is self-obsessed but admirably self-aware about it. “Will I live and die / In a band?” he asks, kicking off another frail acoustic jam called “Playing on My Mind.” But “Guys,” which wraps up the record (track 22!) on a much slower but no less ecstatic jangle, is a love letter to the folks he regularly upstages during photo shoots: “The moment that we started a band / Was the best thing that ever happened. … You guys are the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It’s all very sweet. As pure closing-number catharsis, it can’t compare with “I Always Want to Die (Sometimes),” but the world maybe doesn’t need another song expressing that sentiment right this second. Better to revel in the camaraderie and cohesion of Notes on a Conditional Form, as out of control as this record gets. Healy is forever trying to shock you, but when he stops trying for even a few minutes, he might still surprise you. He still contains multitudes, of aliens, of astronauts.