Being Funny in a Foreign Language: The 1975’s New Expression of Earnest

 

Written by Zoe Tevyaw, Photography courtesy of Dirty Hit

October 14 marked the release of the fifth full-length album from The 1975,  Being Funny in a Foreign Language through Dirty Hit indie label. Half the length of its predecessor Notes on a Conditional Form, Being Funny feels like a shift for the band’s thematic tones and the beginning  of a transition away from the suave and sardonic attitude audiences have come to expect from the British pop rock group.

The first glimpse of the record came three months beforehand, with the release of a music video for “Part of the Band,” an incredibly self-referential piece that reflects on past songs and attitudes devised by frontman Matty Healy who, in the “Part of the Band” outro asks no one in particular, “Am I ironically woke? The butt of my joke? Or am I just some post-coke, average, skinny bloke calling his ego imagination?” The singer draws on his past battles with heroin addiction, relationships, and his string of online cancellations with more sincerity than ever before, offering a gateway into the new ideas Being Funny would soon come to present.

Healy explains the album title on the Spotify page for Being Funny in a Foreign Language, describing that the times he's been most impressed by humanity are when witnessing somebody be funny in a foreign language: “It’s the height of sophistication really because it's the height of empathy and you’re straddling these two cultural boundaries which are so specific, and to have an understanding of both and bring them together… if everyone focused on that, we’d be good.”

Since its release Being Funny has hit the charts throughout the US and Europe, earning an 8.0 rating from Pitchfork and similar accolades across other critic sites. Reflecting the both palatable and compelling nature of the project, the band has captured fans old and new in their reemergence from the frenzy and vastness of their last full-length with the more clear and consolidated Being Funny.

#1 on UK Albums & UK Indie Albums

#1 on Scottish, Irish, and Australian Albums

#7 on US Billboard 200

#2 on US Independent Albums, US Top Alternative Albums, US Top Rock Albums

#3 on Billboard Top Album Sales 

Why has Being Funny in a Foreign Language had such an effect? Part of what contrasts this album against Notes on a Conditional Form (2020) or A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (2018) is the band’s partnership with Jack Antonoff on this project. Audiences might know Antonoff best from his continuing work with Taylor Swift on several albums including the new Midnights, various other collaborations with some of today’s top acts, and his own musical project Bleachers. 

Together, Antonoff and Healy decided on a return to roots with real instruments and a “play it and record it” philosophy, bringing back more of the glossy, 80s-inspired feel reminiscent of 2016’s I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. The record was written primarily by Matty Healy with help from drummer George Daniel, and recorded between New York and London with the same band lineup that’s existed since its members were 13: Healy, Daniel, bassist Ross McDonald and guitarist Adam Hann. Healy told Apple Music that, as a group, it’s “the first time that we’ve been really good artists and really good producers and grown men at the same time.” 

But it isn’t just that signature Antonoff-energy to which the success of this record can be attributed – Matty Healy has spoken in several interviews about how Being Funny differs from his past works. Lyrically and thematically, it is a record that signifies his own personal growth out of the leather-jacket, cigarette-smoking allure of being in your 20s into the larger issues of the 30s. In an interview with the New York Times, he describes his writing on The 1975’s past projects as exhibiting a vibe of “Love! And me! And this! And that!” with Being Funny encapsulating a bit more sincerity with a sentiment of “OK, right, love. Let’s do love” in its songs.

This common thread of love provides some of the record’s happiest moments in songs like “Looking for Somebody (To Love)” and “Oh Caroline” that bring high-energy excitement to the prospect of finding love. These, along with the more somber-yet-satisfied “All I Need to Hear,” perpetuate the cliche of love saving everything. Despite the new layers of sincerity, there is no mistaking the 1975 sound in these tracks – diehard and new fans alike would find trouble mistaking Healy’s voice for anyone else, and that retro sheen transcends even the most electronic of their musical tendencies.

However, Being Funny wouldn’t have that 1975 charm without including the darker underbelly of the topic at hand: romance. The final track “When We Are Together” gives that to listeners. An eerie, Paul Simon-esque instrumentation meets Healy’s melancholic ramblings about a lost love head-on. Originally not included on the album’s tracklist, “When We Are Together” was written, recorded, and mixed within 30 hours, 4 days before the album was due to be delivered in attempts to emotionally resolve the story laid out in the 10 tracks before it. Healy, fresh out of a breakup, closes the love loop and completes his exploration with a stripped-down version of himself he’d seldom offered to his audience before.

The 1975’s first four albums all attacked the chaos of 21st century life with irony through an individualistic and nihilistic lens – every aspect was deliberate and with a dash of existentialism. Notes served as the farthest extent of these ideals The 1975 could reach, and it's clear in Being Funny that they had to take on a new vantage point. Healy describes that “the last album was going to see Transformers at the IMAX, this is like going to see a play and you’re like, maybe I should go to the bathroom right now but it’s a bit awkward.”

The album opens with “The 1975” – a name that each album opener has shared – which immediately calls up this new spin on the themes of Notes and A Brief Inquiry with an intensely sympathetic hook “I’m sorry if you’re living and you’re seventeen.” The piece is a heady, atmospheric overture with Healy reconciling that he and the youth are no longer synonymous. The things he resents as an adult – the online landscape, the political climate, and a host of other problems – are also pressed upon those much younger and more ill-equipped to take on such immense issues. 

At its core, this shift revolves around that kind of earnestness and empathy. Where The 1975’s previous works hid behind aloofness and sarcasm, Being Funny actively fights against the urge to cheapen its own sentiments and instead provide an honesty not previously felt. The record feels that reality-shock of no longer being able to romanticize the future, when responsibility and love are no longer far-away ideas to laugh about. Healy constructed the circumstances for this more grounded record expertly if not intentionally with his history of sarcastic lyricism, being able to pull the rug out from under audiences with the sheer earnestness of Being Funny.

 

Nowhere is this more evident than in “I’m In Love With You,” a completely unironic love song with a shimmery pop sound that The 1975 fans never could have expected, yet has won hearts and garnered the most streams of any Being Funny song with over 25 million and counting. The band’s performance of “I’m In Love With You” on BBC’s ‘Later with Jools Holland’ has recently even found some virality on TikTok as users fall in love with Healy’s boyish charm as he bounces around the stage singing the bridge lines “Don’t fuck it, you muppet!” Healy expresses pride for this song specifically as its candidness was hard for him to commit to, even having an anecdote where bandmate Adam Hann had to knock some sense into the frontman to stop him from writing “I’m Not In Love With You.”

The 1975 started their live shows in support of Being Funny with an appearance as substitute headliner at Reading & Leeds Festival, replacing Rage Against The Machine whose frontman couldn’t perform for medical reasons. While the band and festival both faced intense internet backlash for the changeover, The 1975 live show remains the spectacle it's always been and can be seen on their fall/winter tour. Thousands of clips of the shows so far have flooded Tik Tok and Instagram, featuring the band’s unique stage presence and interesting house-like stage set. The tour is titled “The 1975 At Their Very Best” not in an attempt at pompousness, but with regards to the current good health and spirits of the band.

Several creative choices on this tour stand out from the typical pop rock flow of show that audiences have become accustomed to. The group shares the bill with no one: opener or co-headliner – the entirety of the audience is there for them. Because they’re unbeholden with sharing the stage time, The 1975 play for nearly 2 continuous hours split between two sets. These two sets, “The 1975: Being Funny in a Foreign Language” and “The 1975: At Their Very Best” presented in that order, give drastically different vibes to the audience. The first serves as a presentation of mostly Being Funny songs with a more serious concert tone than might be expected. While still chock-full of that unique Healy stage presence, the overall energy gives into their new earnestness in a way not typically found at a rock show. The group wants the audience to pay attention to this first half of the set and the thoughts their songs were conveying.

That thought was tied up with a 10 minute break following the first set in the middle of the show, during which every performer vacated the stage save for Matty Healy, who began a performance art display while those backstage underwent costume changes and a stage reset. The entirely non-verbal performance was meant to signify the feeling of being alone yet constantly barraged by news of the state of the world. The feelings of shock, confusion, and desperation are all felt in real-time by the audience as Healy eats raw meat, does pushups, and feels himself all while clips of controversial figures and news stories flash on the television on stage that he eventually climbs into at the end of the piece. Despite feeling wildly out of place at a rock venue, the performance feels significantly on-brand for Healy and The 1975 and the subjects they tend to speak most on both in previous records and Being Funny.

The second half of the set feels like a complete reset getting everybody back on track with the typical concert proceedings. They open with an extremely high-energy “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” that has band and audience members alike bouncing and singing along. Though filled with more of their older crowd pleasers, the band has also decided to include a couple lesser-appreciated songs in each tour stop that cater to their personal tastes and to diehard fans more than that of their overall show audience. These breaks from the widely known give new audience members a chance to further appreciate the performance and dive deeper into the band’s discography.

On November 7, the group performed at Madison Square Garden in NYC, also choosing to livestream the show for free through Amazon Music UK’s Twitch account. The stream garnered an additional 50,000+ audience members from around the globe that couldn’t attend the show or tour in-person. The 1975, through this stream, showed an awareness of accessibility concerns in the post-COVID concert space and the ever-rising increase in ticket prices and fees that have increased barriers to the live music experience for many fans. I, myself, was a livestream viewer unable to get in-person tickets, and had the opportunity to sit with friends and create my own live music experience at home. While certainly lacking the community-centered feeling of being on a GA floor or sitting with like-minded fans singing at the top of our lungs, having that stress-free at-home experience offered its own benefits.

Being Funny in a Foreign Language is currently available to listen to everywhere, and tickets for “The 1975 At Their Very Best” can be bought through the band’s website.

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