Kitty Em­pire on the spec­tac­u­lar open­ing of the new 1975 tour in Belfast

Blurred gen­res, dig­i­tal anx­i­eties and gi­ant iPhones… the 1975 strive for the zeit­geist as they open their new UK tour

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - Kitty Em­pire

Singer Matt Healy is stand­ing on a hy­draulic lift at the back of the arena stage, rub­bing his slicked-back, nat­u­ral-coloured dark hair. Dressed down in ath­leisure and a V-neck top, he turns his back to the crowd and re­gards the mas­sive screen be­hind his band, the 1975, with cu­rios­ity.

The vi­su­als on this first night of the band’s lat­est tour have been pretty im­pres­sive thus far. “Moder­nity has failed us,” runs a line from Love It If We Made It (played later in the set), a stark state­ment from the band’s per­sua­sive third al­bum, A Brief In­quiry Into On­line Re­la­tion­ships. But the 1975 do have some uses for the tech age. There is a lot of very shiny stage­craft de­ployed in tonight’s gig, bump­ing them up into the role of arena in­no­va­tors.

For Sin­cer­ity Is Scary, Healy un­ex­pect­edly re-en­acts the song’s video in a pair of chunky head­phones and a rab­bit-eared hat. A vast hi-res pro­jec­tion of a New York brown­stone be­hind him, Healy ca­vorts like Michael Jack­son down a sneaky tread­mill that runs the width of the front of the stage. The band – drum­mer and pro­ducer Ge­orge Daniel, bassist and key­board player Ross Mac­Don­ald, gui­tarist and key­board player Adam Hann – play on, safely be­hind a row of lights.

The stage set is full of mov­ing light-boxes and glow­ing squares – nods to this band’s on-off ob­ses­sion with rec­tan­gles. The quadri­lat­er­als tilt, fram­ing and re­fram­ing the ac­tion, ref­er­enc­ing the orig­i­nal neon shape that ap­peared on the cover of the band’s 2013 self-ti­tled de­but al­bum. (Fans have been known to get tat­toos of “the box”.) It is, you re­flect, a bit like a Face­book game of “how many rec­tan­gles can you see? 92% FAIL this sim­ple test” writ large: there are zil­lions of them.

A Brief In­quiry Into On­line Re­la­tion­ships (their third No 1), dwells at length, too, on how those rec­tan­gles in our pock­ets suck us in, dis­tract us and warp our sense of our­selves.

It’s hardly the most orig­i­nal of mod­ern com­plaints, but the 1975 are cred­i­ble emis­saries from a land of sur­faces and mis­trust: they nail the on­go­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of how our feel­ings are be­ing ma­nip­u­lated by our tech­nol­ogy more per­cep­tively – and more tune­fully – than most. Ra­dio­head, for one, never had a pop banger as blithe as the 1975’s sweetly nag­ging Too Time Too Time Too Time, which con­sid­ers in­fi­delity while re­call­ing Justin Bieber and Afro-swing.

And they are un­likely to have de­ployed dancers. The 1975 have al­ways oc­cu­pied a grey area be­tween pop and rock – in­deed, their cre­ation myth in­volves shrug­ging off such de­lin­eations and mak­ing funky 80s arena gui­tar tunes, against the ad­vice of the en­tire mu­sic in­dus­try. Most of tonight’s show feels more like pop in part be­cause of two dancers, the Jaiy twins – thought­fully non-sex­u­alised in white over­alls – whose dance steps Healy ably mim­ics.

It’s hard to con­jure real clev­er­ness out of large venues, where the ten­dency is to have peo­ple fly­ing about for the sake of it. But this band, armed with such a heavy al­bum, man­age to pull off a deft con­jur­ing trick or two.

As Healy gazes up at the back wall dur­ing The Bal­lad of Me and My Brain, a track from their pre­vi­ous record, I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beau­ti­ful, Yet So Un­aware of It, the back­drop buzzes with TV static. As Healy touches the screen, it warps into daz­zling colour.

He then steps up, and into the static. From the side, it looks as though he has van­ished. It is a mo­ment that draws a col­lec­tive gasp from the crowd: it’s not so much that Healy has bro­ken the fourth wall, it’s that the fourth wall has eaten him.

Swiftly, the pro­jec­tions shift and Healy is vis­i­ble once more, stand­ing on a shelf in­side the back­drop for one more au­da­cious re­veal. The singer is framed to look as though he is in­side an ac­tual iPhone, the word “hello” in an Ap­ple-like font above his head. It’s quite a cool feat: toy­ing with depth per­cep­tion, then mak­ing peo­ple take pic­tures of you with their phones, stand­ing in­side a phone.

Af­ter this, the rest of the band’s set goes by in a blur of daz­zling, hy­per-lurid dig­i­tal vi­su­als, the tra­jec­tory slightly down­hill. It’s not that the 1975 lack for mo­men­tum – they just fail to pull the rug out from un­der the crowd in quite the same way as be­fore.

Healy, too, is more of an enig­matic pres­ence tonight than he has been pre­vi­ously. It might be a case of first-night con­cen­tra­tion, or per­haps, a clearer head than in years gone by. What­ever: he pri­ori­tises not fall­ing off the trav­e­la­tor, rather than en­act­ing his pre­vi­ous brand of fop­pish dis­so­lu­tion, or say­ing a great deal be­tween songs. You can hardly blame him – the last time he was loose-lipped, he had to is­sue a clar­i­fi­ca­tion of his views on misog­yny in rock and hip-hop.

When he came out as a re­cov­er­ing heroin user last sum­mer, the in­ter­net did not ex­actly wilt from the shock. Few artists have gone about their busi­ness with as much gusto for rock’n’roll cliche as this 29-year-old.

Tat­tooed, fre­quently shirt­less, when younger, Healy chan­nelled the brash sen­su­al­ity of 80s stars like INXS’s Michael Hutchence while si­mul­ta­ne­ously rais­ing a mil­len­nial eye­brow at the ab­sur­dity of it all; tonight, he seems more con­tained, even as he gam­bols around.

The jaded might won­der if smok­ing opi­ates was on some bucket list of poses for Healy. More com­pas­sion­ate ob­servers might pon­der the need for un­quiet minds to self-med­i­cate. Healy, for his part, has been can­did in song and in­ter­views about his in­se­cu­ri­ties and sui­ci­dal thoughts, which pop­u­late this al­bum even more au­di­bly than be­fore.

The 1975 nail the ex­pe­ri­ence of how our feel­ings are be­ing ma­nip­u­lated by our tech­nol­ogy

As a re­sult, he has emerged as an ar­tic­u­late per­son­al­ity in­creas­ingly in tune with anx­ious times. Tonight, I Like Amer­ica & Amer­ica Likes Me (named af­ter a Joseph Beuys per­for­mance art piece where he spent three days in a room with a coy­ote) marks the height of over-stim­u­la­tion – our col­lec­tive over­load, and Healy’s per­sonal ver­sion. Lay­ered with Auto-Tune, Healy sings about his fear of death while the track hits a kind of au­di­tory and retina-singe­ing peak, tilt­ing at Xanax-ad­dled trap hip-hop.

Hav­ing sur­vived the age of 27 – when Jimi Hen­drix, Brian Jones, Ja­nis Joplin, Jim Mor­ri­son and Kurt Cobain died – the only rock cliches left for the 1975 to em­brace are trav­el­ling in dif­fer­ent tour buses and mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary about their group ther­apy, as Me­tal­lica once did.

Cer­tainly, the al­bum they made around Healy’s stint in rehab in Bar­ba­dos is a sprawl­ing, gen­re­hop­ping mashup that re­flects both our era of al­ways-on ex­cess, and Healy’s par­tic­u­lar re­sponses to his own in­ter­nal ca­coph­ony. That such har­row­ing fare can be this re­fresh­ing live is a coup.

‘An ar­tic­u­late per­son­al­ity in­creas­ingly in tune with anx­ious times’: the 1975’s Matt Healy in Belfast last week, with band­mates Adam Hann (left) and Ross Mac­Don­ald and dance duo the Jaiy Twins. Pho­to­graph by Jor­dan Cur­tis Hughes

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