The 1975 does nothing by accident.
The beloved British rockers are known to be ducks on the pond, unfurling easy, high-gloss hooks for casual fans and churning wildly beneath the surface with meticulous arrangements appreciated by the diehards, who’ve dutifully followed the band from their buzzy pop breakthrough in 2013 to their experimental period, with 2018′s outrageous yet excellent “A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships” and 2020′s more opaque and coolly received “Notes on a Conditional Form.”
Even now, as the hugely popular foursome from Manchester, U.K. enjoys a return to acclaim with last month’s release of “Being Funny in a Foreign Language” — a more grounded and highly addicting fifth LP (one of my favorites of 2022), shepherded in part by New Jersey super-producer Jack Antonoff — they remain deeply deliberate in their movements.
Enter Wednesday night at Freedom Mortgage Pavilion in Camden, where a sold-out crowd witnessed an early date on the coyly named “1975 At Their Very Best” new U.S. tour — a highly stylized performance reveling in the realism and intensity of an Arthur Miller play. The stage set was as elaborate as anything I’ve seen this year (or in recent memory), with the full construction of a cluttered 1950s/60s-era rec room: Stocked bookshelves, mid-century television sets, couches, chairs, lamps, radio, coffee table, vases of flowers, an ancient vacuum, not to mention functioning doors and windows, where the band — all dressed in retro slacks and button-downs, most wearing sport jackets — could exit or enigmatic frontman Matty Healy could peer out to a camera for dramatic effect. The stage was bookended by a spiral staircase to nowhere and a 30-foot telephone pole with a street light.
All that, plus the clusters of instruments and the band’s touring iteration, which includes an additional four members on extra guitars, percussion and saxophone. There should’ve been a playbill.
The exhilarating two-hour set was split in half, the first hour focusing on the new record and interacting directly with the melange of domestic set pieces — a dramatic shift from the band’s minimalist tours of the past, where monolithic pink-neon screens were all they needed to commandeer the Stone Pony in Asbury Park a few years back.
Healy, 33, played a tortured character here, like a “Mad Men” star just home from the office, chain-smoking cigarettes (real cigs) and taking swigs from a silver flask (not convinced he was actually boozing). He took turns rubber-legging at the microphone like Elvis Presley for the uptempo newbie “Looking for Somebody (to Love),” and sat in a chair, kicking his feet up on the coffee table and flatly telling the crowd “thank you for coming over” during fellow newcomer “Happiness.”
While Healy himself has always appeared rather aloof on stage, he cranked up the distance during this segment, rarely facing the audience of 7,000 teens and twenty-somethings, seeming to become lost in his character’s torment. Still, the mood was sunny enough for the booming ‘80s-synth shmaltz of “Oh Caroline” and “I’m in Love with You,” with its simple teenybopper hook. Things turned darker around 2013′s “Fallingforyou,” a more somber deep cut, which caused the young woman next to me to burst into heaving sobs.
The open weeping, both from her and surrounding fans, intensified during 2018′s smoldering ballad “Be My Mistake,” which Healy prefaced by revealing, to no one in particular, that “I’m not very good at being at home or by myself.” Though he was sure to maintain his sex appeal, slowly unbuttoning his shirt and thrusting his hips from a couch, then walking over to a now-rearranged stack of TVs and doing push-ups before them — and then he, uh, climbed into one of the TVs. He did not consume any raw meat, as he did at his Madison Square Garden performance Monday night.
The theatrical approach, while memorable, surely fed into the air of pretension (and subsequent derision) that’s always followed The 1975 — few bands of the last decade are more exhaustively attacked and defended on social media. Were this the show’s only tone, such further criticism would’ve been warranted.
But again, this was only the first half. And my God, what a second half!
Fueled by hits the band had held back, the final hour was a clinic in pop-rock propulsion, elation and fury. It was everything the band, who certainly remain at the height of their power, can and should be — a blistering run led by Healy, who emerged (from the stage door) in a new black-and-white suit, as did the rest of the band, like millennial Blues Brothers, minus the fedoras.
“I was just pretending before,” Healy joked about his surly character, finally cracking a smile.
The crowd lit up here, belting along to ‘18′s beaming “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” and 2016′s mercilessly catchy “The Sound,” where the stage was illuminated in lavender, Healy pulled the on-stage camera down to his crotch and fans blissfully bounced in time.
Some sweeping, soul-affirming catharsis came with the towering alt-rock cut “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes),” with Healy strumming an acoustic guitar under a single spotlight. That moment I won’t soon forget, nor the explosive “Love It if We Made It,” — a political, punky romp that found Healy full-throat screaming before flashing white strobes. Full body chills; a throttling beast of a tune.
As the show sped to a close and the crashing guitar breaks of “Sex” gave way to the manic pure-pop utopia of “Give Yourself a Try,” Healy screamed, with some level of sarcasm: “We are the best band in the world!”A lofty claim, of course, but after this spectacular outing, he may not be far off.
The 1975′s setlist
Nov. 9, 2022 — Freedom Mortgage Pavilion, Camden, N.J.