Concert review: The 1975 at Express Live

Andy Downing
The 1975

Early in the 1975’s performance at a sold-out Express Live, singer Matt Healy posed a question to the audience. “What’s it like being a rock star in the 21st century?” he asked.

“I’ve got the trousers,” he cracked in following, tugging at his leather pants as he considered his role. Finally, Healy offered that “all will be discussed in the next three minutes” as the Manchester band swung into “Love Me,” a swaggering pop-rock tune on which musical fame is painted as parts surreal (“Next thing you’ll find you’re reading about yourself on a plane”) and hollow (“You look famous/Let’s be friends!”).

Three albums into an ascendant career, the fellas in the 1975, particularly Healy, are most certainly famous, drawing a capacity crowd to Express Live’s outdoor festival setup. (An amused Healy joked that while the band had played the venue “4,000 times” in the past, it had outgrown the usual grassy Express outdoor space and been relegated to “playing in the car park.”)

It’s a level of fame reflected in the high production value of the group’s stylish, tech-obsessed show. The musicians’ digital fondness stretched from the stage setup, which included a massive projection screen, elaborate lighting rigs and a large, glowing rectangle that both framed the action and served as an interactive element, to Healy’s words, which, at times, explored the downsides of life in the iPhone era.

It often made for an interesting dichotomy, with the 1975 utilizing high-end tech as a means to transmit the various ways in which technology is damaging us. Witness “Love If We Made It,” off the band’s most recent album, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, from 2018, where Healy explored the growing digital disconnect (“We can … access all the applications that are hardening positions based on miscommunication”) and desensitization brought on by media over-saturation as various atrocities flashed onscreen, from the terror attacks of 9/11 to footage of anonymous drone strikes. “Modernity has failed us,” he repeated, and it was hard to find flaw in his logic.

Other songs took on added dimensions in the live setting, such as “Somebody Else,” where Healy sang of “looking through you while you’re looking through your phone,” directing his words squarely into the cellphone cameras held aloft by numerous concertgoers.

Modern stresses similarly shaped the overstimulated, Auto-Tuned “I Like America & America Likes Me,” named for a Joseph Beuys performance piece where the artist spent three days in a room with a coyote, on which Healy, words pouring forth in a seizure-inducing rush, addressed his fear of death, among other anxieties. The frontman repeatedly countered these admissions with a half-hearted, “It’s fine” — essentially offering up the 1975 equivalent of the “This is fine” meme.

At times, the band’s music compressed the radio dial, songs ping-ponging from 1980s arena rock ballads (the swollen, swooning “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)”) to skittish, Xanax-riddled, would-be trap-hop tracks (“Narcissist”) and digitized, Drake-esque turns like the Auto-Tuned “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME,” where Healy briefly mirrored the movements of the identical-twin dancers who flanked him for much of the evening.

But even as Healy pondered questions of rock stardom, he wasn’t afraid to poke holes in his own image. On “A Change of Heart,” for one, the singer briefly embodied a concerned ex taking him to task. “You look shit and smell a bit,” he sang, making it clear that things aren’t always pretty for 21st century rock stars — even ones with the proper trousers.