The 1975's 'I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)' Is the Year's Best 20th Anniversary Tribute to 1998 Rock
For a group that's rightly hailed as one of the few examples of a 2018 rock band that feels vital to its time, The 1975 have always taken a great deal of inspiration from the past. Beyond its name, '80s-era influences ranging from The Smiths to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to Tango in the Night-era Fletwood Mac have long informed The 1975's sound, while a sense of '90s Britpop largesse has been equally impactful on the U.K. quartet's public image and relationship with the media.
The group's third album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, released Friday (Nov. 30), certainly continues on these paths of inspiration. "Love It If We Made It" swipes its faux-harp twinkles from Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere," and the jazzy drum-brushings and last-call yearnings of "Mine" scream Faith-era George Michael balladry. Meanwhile, the Siri-speak and technophobia of "The Man Who Married a Robot" seem specifically designed to bait the NME into comparing the album to Radiohead's OK Computer. (It worked.) But the album does push their retro leanings further into the future-past on one of the set's most interesting tracks -- its grandstanding five-minute closer, "I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)."
Many critics have compared the song to the work of Britpop giants Oasis, specifically their titanic (What's The Story) Morning Glory? closer "Champagne Supernova." The parallel makes sense in broad, big-statement-by-generational-band terms -- and because basically any epic U.K. rock closer released after '95 owes a kind of tribute tax to "Champagne Supernova" on general principle -- but on strictly musical or lyrical terms, it doesn't really hold up. The string-laden bombast of "Wanna Die" is too tightly coiled, too crisply produced, too bleary-eyed in its sentimentality to match the gloriously anthemic nonsense of an Oasis barroom singalong. It feels a little sadder, a little more American, a little later on the alt-rock timeline. Specifically, it feels like 1998.
In 1998, both grunge and Britpop had totally run their course as the dominant sounds of '90s rock on both sides of the pond, and what was left was an increasingly studio-gussied sense of alt-rock post-grandeur, big on hooks and crossover appeal but low on ambition or direction. It was the year of Fuel's "Shimmer," of Semisonic's "Closing Time," of the fourth and fifth singles off the first Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind albums. By the next year, nu-metal and pop-punk would take over as the dominant sounds of new alternative, but for most of '98, rock was wallowing in the final stages of its last stand as the dominant form of mainstream popular music. It didn't have to go home, but it couldn't stay there.
It's a moment that unsurprisingly few bands have since tried to recreate. Partly that's because properly doing so is fairly costly -- late-'90s studio spending was out of control, as you can hear in many of the needlessly ornate productions of the time -- but mostly it's because the era was absolutely credless, as synonymous with corporate-rock bloat as the pre-punk prog and arena bands of the mid-'70s. That's where The 1975 come in: Not only is the band's love of pop and rock history wide and intricate enough that they remember the period well enough and affectionately enough to accurately recreate it -- and seeming "cool" went out the window for them with the first chorus to "Chocolate" -- but they have the ambition (and the budget) to actually do so.
And so, we have "I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)" -- a song which, from the very first seconds of its melancholy acoustic strums, cascading piano and shuffling drums, will give listeners of a certain age flashbacks to a million VH1 morning video blocks, a feeling which only swells through the song's canned strings, pained chorus and crashing drum fills. It's the sound of Ethan Embry driving around while moping about his unrequited love for Jennifer Love Hewitt. It's teen angst that's too essentially bummed to offer much in the way of anger, passion or resistance. It's the end of the century, and as one of that generation's defining bands proclaimed, it's nothing special.
But "Wanna Die" is special. It's a song that uses the last-call melancholy of its 1998-ness to reach out a hand to its fans that feel that way all the time -- sometimes -- in 2018. Bookending A Brief Inquiry along with the album's proper opener, "Give Yourself a Try," a chest-punching post-punk anthem that challenges listeners to eclipse their own self-doubts and give the outside world a chance, "Wanna Die" takes the opposite approach to get to the same place. Rather than ripping listeners out of their funk with searing guitar and a choose-life chorus, it indulges listener depression and climbs down in the hole with them -- but still points out that it's worth trying to fight your way back out ("You win, you lose, you sing the blues/ There's no point in buying concrete shoes/ I'll refuse.") And turns out, there's no better way for frontman Matty Healy to sonically express I've been there than his band recreating one of the bleakest moments in rock history.
And the throwback wasn't unintentional, either. Healy himself confirmed the '98 bonafides of "Wanna Die" in an interview with Pitchfork, where he shrugged off the suggestion that the song "feels very Britpop." "It’s not a 'Bittersweet Symphony' or an Oasis song really, because it’s not as dark," he points out, before invoking two of the biggest rock crossover hits of 1998 to illustrate the song's genesis in the studio: "I got David [Campbell], who did the strings for 'Iris' by Goo Goo Dolls, to do the strings for it. I was thinking, 'I have the potential for this to be cinematic. Why not do a gritty, English "I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing"?' It just made a lot of sense."
For a song of such seeming contradiction, down to its very title, "I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)" really does make a lot of sense. It explicitly calls back to a period of gentle sorrow and subtle crisis in rock music, both to unnerve listeners who haven't heard a new song sound quite like this in decades, and to reflect what so many of their fans still feel like on a daily basis. Modernity may have failed us, but the late '90s gets 'em every time.