The concert hall fills with mist. Bright, white lights begin to flood the club floor. An electronic drone assaults the ears. The drone gets louder. The mist gets thicker. The lights start to dim. Screams pierce the droning. Teenage girls, young women, gay men, more straight dudes than you'd think. Any movement on stage, any change in the lights or the electronic buzz causes more screams. The lights become pinpoints, slowly disappearing in the mist enveloping the stage. The house sound system cuts out. Your ear drums are never the same.
You've heard the stories about the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1966...about how the screams of the fans reached such a roar that none of the Beatles onstage could hear the music they were playing. You thought it was an exaggeration. You didn't think people could go that wild over a group of British rock stars. You were wrong. You hadn't seen The 1975
The opening track of this year's I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
hits. The house lights bathe the audience and the stage in a deep purple. The screams reach a fever pitch. The band hasn't taken the stage yet. The screams surrounding you are so loud they're beginning to hurt. You haven't heard anything this loud since the time you were stuck next to the speakers at an EDM set at Bonnaroo without earplugs. Your ears were ringing for the rest of the weekend. You hope that doesn't happen again. Then, finally, Matt Healy's pompadour/A Flock of Seagulls hairdo peeks out from the mist on stage. Somehow, the screams get louder.
The 1975, the hottest Mancunian export since Manchester United, burst into "Love Me." Matt Healy is wearing a strategically half-unbuttoned, white shirt. You're worried that if he loses another button that there might be a riot. He leads his band through slick, sexy New Wave funk-pop. You think you finally understand what it would be like to see INXS in their prime. If Michael Hutchence's spirit has possessed anyone in the years since his tragic, it's 1975 frontman, Matt Healy.
The band flies through hit after hit from the new record and their self-titled debut. The audience never stops screaming the lyrics back at them. On the biggest singles like "Ugh" and "Sex," you can barely hear the band over the audience singing off-key along with them. You keep expecting the audience's enthusiasm to die down. It doesn't. It swells.
Matt Healy dances. He's a serviceable dancer at best. He's no Blood Orange in the dance department, but it doesn't matter. He doesn't care that his dance skills are just okay. His confidence makes up for it. He has no fear. And every time he shakes his hips or flails his arms in the air like he's possessed by that last slinky bass line or the unexpected shredding of the band's lead guitarist or the smooth soul of the band's secret weapon (their sax player), the screams begin anew.
You look at the girl that you came to the show with. She's lost in the ecstasy of a live performance. Her hands snake through the air. Her body sways to the rhythm of music. Her head weaves under The 1975's control. She's more of a fan of their early stuff than you are. You didn't really get into The 1975 until the last album. When the band plays "Medicine," her face is transformed by one of the most pure and rapturous smiles you've ever seen. You'd almost forgotten it was possible for a person to smile as radiantly as this band's music is making her smile.
The band segues into "Somebody Else." It's your favorite track from the new record. There's something about the understated soul of it...the sheer vulnerability of Matt Healy's songwriting and the unguarded emotion of his vocals. You realize that as you're singing along, you've started singing it at the girl who drove you to the show. You're pretty sure she doesn't notice. You're trying not to think about her that way these days. You're just friends, but for that moment and with those tunes, that modicum of self-discipline is ripped away. You are completely at the mercy of The 1975 and their music and the lovesick yearning Matt Healy is transmitting to everyone around you. You know that you'll be fine in the morning, but you also know that The 1975 have delivered one of those moments where you'll never be able to hear a song the same way again.
You wonder how long it will be before you can hear "Somebody Else" and not immediately see her face.
It's not a mystery why The 1975 have become one of the biggest alternative pop bands on the planet in such a short period of time. Few songwriters working today know their way around a hook half as well as Matt Healy, and he pairs his surgically precise ear for pop-rock songwriting with a subversive and utterly uninhibited lyrical edge. In a decade where it's hard to figure out what anything in Top 40 pop radio is actually about, Healy sings anthems about his battle with mental illness ("The Ballad of Me and My Brain"), his struggle with cocaine addiction ("Ugh!"), and bracingly intimate dives into his feelings on life and love ("A Change of Heart"). When Matt Healy sings, there isn't any irony. There isn't any cool distance. It's just him, his music, and everything he's willing to share about who he is and how he feels. It's hard not to connect to art that honest.
It also doesn't hurt that The 1975 are deceptively great musicians. The bass riff from "She's American" is as magnetically propulsive as anything Flea ever wrote for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The guitar solo at the end of "The Sound" could have been ripped right out of the classic arena rock era, albeit with a more contemporary, exultant twist. I caught more than a couple of my fellow concert-goers actually crying during the sax interlude of "This Must Be My Dream," and there were several occasions where Matt Healy was grinning as much as the audience watching his saxophonist take that show to a higher level. The band segues between synth love ballads, head-banging rock, and scream-along-at-the-top-of-your-lungs pop perfection without missing a beat. Their records are meticulously crafted and exquisitely produced, but their live show doesn't miss a single element of what makes their studio efforts so impressive and that's no easy feat.
And if The 1975 were just content to be one of our best new arena pop-rock bands, that would have been fine. They're pretty goddamn great in that role. I'm still recovering my voice from the show Tuesday night at Pittsburgh's Stage AE (one of two sold-out evenings the band played in the Steel City). But The 1975 are more ambitious than that. Tracks like "Please Be Naked" and the title tune from I Like It When You Sleep...
are minimalist electronica that owe more to experimental film scores and early James Blake than the band's more traditional New Wave influences. These songs aren't ever going to burn up the charts, but they have a gorgeous atmospheric texture that few bands of their commercial stature would even attempt, and The 1975 knew that they could trust their audience to appreciate the subtleties of these melodies. Contemporary pop tends to run at 11 at all times and The 1975 found space for nearly psychedelic, quiet beauty.
If you've ever dismissed The 1975 as a mere boy band, you need to reassess that stance. With their latest record and this tour, they have rightfully taken their place as one of the most exciting and ambitious acts working today. And they're only two records into their career. They've got plenty of time to get even better.