The Strokes 2001 debut Is This It? was a smash beyond. It’s easy to use hyperbole whilst discussing music due to its inherently personal nature, but this is a flat, indisputable fact. After a couple of laborious years of nu-metal being the only ‘guitar genre’ with any stead in the mainstream charts, there was a primed position available for an alternative. Radiohead’s Kid A and QotSA’s Rated R were doing just fine commercially, but they failed to shape the climate on a global scale; they weren’t exactly sugary sweet offerings for your typical radio listener. Somebody needed to utilise the elements of pop music, create a cross-section, and run with the damn ball. Is This It? was that timely record, and the New York outfit were promptly held to a standard nobody could aspire to, not even them. The insane reception made them overnight demi-gods.
The years roll on, and the bar never settles. Later albums perform well, but nothing seems to compare to that inaugural outing, despite how much people insist on trying. It looked as if Julian Casablancas and friends had a terminal case of debut hype. They persisted nonetheless, and the NME-crowned overlords of a generation of skinny jean wearing, mop-headed teenagers who smoke Marlboros were forced to fight their lauded expectations each time out.
Nearly twenty years removed from those lofty heights, the band are in a much different position. Follow-ups Room on Fire and First Impressions of Earth might not have shared the same sudden success, but now sit comfortably with their predecessor amongst the indie classics of the 2000’s; the rest of the spots mostly occupied by the best projects of the many bands they inspired to pick up a Fender. But what do The Strokes sound like in 2020?
Opener ‘The Adults are Talking’ entices with an airy, sort of industrial kick before bringing in that familiar ensnarement of heavy bass and clean guitar licks. The reserved track finds Julian so hushed in his vocal performance, it’s as if he’s trying not to wake somebody. It’s all worth it to get to pay off the beautiful falsetto bridge around the three minute mark where he finally cuts loose; and the frankly robotic solo that follows really cements the pre-established futuristic feel to everything. “We are tryin’ hard to get your attention” – you have it.
‘Selfless’ exorcises feelings of vulnerability. The driving force is this delicate string melody that sounds as if you’re about to ascend into the heavens at any given moment. It’s a song about dependency, admittance, and where to go afterwards, with an enviable chorus line, and the kind of tight songwriting skill Julian has most recently mastered with other project The Voidz. The second verse really jumps out at you, like the track is now abandoned, but while we’re on the topic here’s what I’m really thinking. It’s loud and it’s desperate, it hugs and it hurts.
READ MORE: Swans – Rebirth of a Band
The shiny carousel fun of 80’s synth inspired number ‘Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus’ is a radio-ready summer sizzler. It holds these influences up to the class, incorporating lyrics that reminisce on the glory days and naturally, discuss alcohol consumption. This’ll move units for sure.
Some forgotten Echo and the Bunnymen riff is dusted off for ‘Bad Decisions’, it would seem; ironically, it’s not one. Continuing this motif of glorifying times gone by, the song borrows fairly liberally from Billy Idol’s ‘Dancing With Myself’. The band dress up affairs with references and Easter eggs pertaining to their personal history, as to establish a sense of identity when using someone else’s work. Julian croons about a disconnect, and you have to imagine from the aforementioned context he’s addressing the fans directly, trying to make amends in a small way for the seven year absence of a full-length, since 2013’s Comedown Machine LP.
The plucky ‘Eternal Summer’ looks Mark Foster dead in the eye and tells him to go fuck himself (seriously though, this would land perfectly on a FtP album). The aggression turns up a little periodically; the scratchy vocals of the chorus complement the sun-bleached verse parts very well. I can picture David Bowie singing “Life is such a funny journey”, and if that’s not a compliment, they don’t exist. We return once again to the group’s adoration of the music of their youth, this time in the form of The Psychedelic Fur’s ‘The Ghost In You’ blessing the pre-chorus section. It’s certainly strange to see samples, so much borrowing on a Strokes record, but considering it bolsters the lyrical content to such an extent, you quickly ride with it. There’s something fresh being done with these parts at least, they aren’t just uncreative copy/paste jobs to give the album more content, they’re structures to gaze upon with shimmery eyes.
First single ‘At the Door’ is a drum-less, pacing synth-pop ballad, a stark departure from the two previous tracks. Having heard this cut before the album was released, I was very surprised when it came around at this juncture, considering the record has pestered me to swan over to the beer garden this last ten minutes. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to fall into the track when it gets going. “Use me like an oar, and get yourself to shore” is the centrepiece lamentation, and it is transfixing.
‘Why are Sundays so Depressing?’ is back to bread and butter. Classic Strokes, in their easy-going jangle-pop pocket. The pulsing electronic texture that keeps the chorus alive is a sound that could do with being elaborated upon a little more, but I guess this partnership of the old and new is the model they’re calling The New Abnormal. I’m not blown away by this one, but it’s fine. ‘Not The Same Anymore’ follows suit, it’s a song you could slot anywhere into the extended catalogue. It swells nicely in the middle, and screeching guitar is deployed thereafter to spruce up the mix, over some hushed, sustaining organ sounds.
READ MORE: Soundtrack Spotlight – Vol. 1
The up and down melody line of wonderful closer ‘Ode to the Mets’ purposefully draws the reticle to the lyrics. “Gone now are the old times/Forgotten, time to hold on the railing/The Rubik’s Cube isn’t solving for us”. If we believed earlier the band were talking to their indie kingdom, this solidifies it. They’re self-aware, they know they’ve been away and most importantly, they know things have changed. The tone here is repentant, dejected, and maybe most upsettingly… understanding. Come on, lads. Comedown Machine wasn’t that bad.
Facetiousness aside, this is an incredibly solid outing and a much needed step in the right direction. Knowing it’s adapt or die, The Strokes have started to sprinkle in a little more of their taste into the work, instead of relying on the formula of riff-based, three minute sparkly indie pop ‘bangers’ about some girl in New York. Not everything hits the way it could; there’s still an air that they’re tentative to deviate out of the comfort zone by too many feet and it’s holding them (or at least this project) back.
We don’t do half stars here so my original rating is out of the question, but I’ll round up and give them the benefit of the doubt for coming through with a handful or so of genuinely uplifting bops at a time like this.