The Strokes Indulge in Vestigial Rock ‘n’ Roll Routine on ‘The New Abnormal’
Any band credited for such lofty accomplishments as reviving rock ‘n’ roll for a new generation should expect a rocky road ahead. The Strokes flew and fell like Icarus, dramatically changing the trajectory of popular music, and falling subject to the treacheries of the industry. No one will shut up about the band’s first two albums, and no one seems to credit them for their underrated third. Sure, 2001’s “Is This It” and 2003’s “Room On Fire” were magical moments in a shifting musical landscape, but 2005’s “First Impressions of the Earth” was a bold, consistent followup from a seasoned band in whom a fickle marketplace had simply lost interest. From then on, releases were patchy, and the band members drifted apart, each taking up projects of their own. Most notably, singer Julian Casablancas went solo with 2009’s “Phrases For the Young,” and proceeded to channel his more experimental proclivities into his other band, the Voidz. The Strokes’ last full-length, 2013’s “Comedown Machine,” seemed to poke fun, with its title, at the consensus that the band had outlived its use. Some spark must have remained, as the Strokes found themselves coming together again seven years later. Their latest album, “The New Abnormal,” produced by the legendary Rick Rubin, has another telling title, seeming to acknowledge that the band is a bit out of place. Even if that is the case, the Strokes remain outstanding songsmiths, and their return offers plenty to enjoy.
A few moments into opener “The Adults Are Talking,” all the Strokes’ defining features are on display. Drummer Fabrizio Moretti carries the band with that clockwork precision all of his own. Casablancas is at his trademark distorted crooning, although more up close than usual, and slightly hushed. The guitars prickle away at palm-muted triplet lines that unfold elegantly into various detours. In a flash, we are reintroduced to the effortless cool that made the Strokes such a big deal in the first place. They chug along with a sort of shrugging contentment, guitars trading places in stereo, moving forward with cool composure. The only egregious misfire comes near the end when Casablancas varies his vocals, stepping into the high register, as he has done occasionally since 2011’s “Angles.” Granted, no one wants to hear “stick to what you’re good at,” and one has to appreciate Casablancas’ continuing ambitions, but he simply needs to try harder, or at least get better. The awkward vocals don’t get a pass via punk rock bona fide amateurism. Rather, they’re quite the opposite, a recorded failed attempt, entirely at odds with Casablancas’ usual cool reserve. Fortunately, the lapse is short-lived, and the band continues to plod away, restrained but spirited.
While nearly every new song has moments that exemplify the Strokes’ brilliance, such moments are sometimes sparse. “Selfless” is fine enough, with some delightfully characteristic guitar interplay and a solo for good measure. Again, Casablancas’ dips into high register are the weak point, although this time kept at bay. One gets the sense of a band having grown too complacent. Just in time, however, they throw out a splash of color with “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus.” It starts with the type of synth riff that could only be played ironically. ‘80s stylings have made their way into the Strokes’ music ever since Casablancas explored them on “Phrases For the Young.” That record is still likely a better realization of such instincts than the relatively half-hearted workings on Strokes releases. Still, there are magic moments on this track, as when Casablancas calls “break,” and it indeed breaks, back into the ridiculous synths. Retro tones add more color, and deliciously messy guitar work reminds us why guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. are masters at their craft, always showing style with tasteful restraint.
Lead single “Bad Decisions” showcases the elusive nostalgic quality that so often fills the Strokes’ music. There’s an infectious titular refrain of “Making bad decisions for you,” reminding us of how the Strokes always embraced rockstar posturing at a time when others found it embarrassing, and pulled it off to everyone’s surprise. Simultaneously, the song also makes a convincing case for the anti-Strokes camp, who have painted them as hackey jokers with rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. Consider that the chorus blatantly borrows the central melody of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself.” To be fair, the band acknowledges this, and even gave Idol a songwriting credit. Still, it’s a sad state of affairs when a band as big as the Strokes copies someone else’s lead single for their own. At any rate, there’s a bit after the chorus with the irresistible counterpoint riffage that has always hooked listeners in and won devotees — think “Reptilia.” Elsewhere, the ‘80s element seeps into the guitar melodies although not into their treatment, making for a new spin on the influence.
On “Eternal Summer,” the Strokes hand out another songwriting credit, this time to the Psychedelic Furs. If you can get past that, you’ll likely find plenty to enjoy. It’s a definite standout, the most blatantly ‘80s song yet, replete with the era’s definitive reverberating snares. Casablancas here gleefully indulges in falsetto, and sounds mainly flat and awkward. When he returns to his usual register, however, he puts on something of a scream, and does it well enough to overcompensate for any previous offense. His voice pushed to this new aggressive limit, juxtaposed with glossy guitars, plodding, smug bass, and squelching feedback, makes for an exhilarating sound, brought over the top by whimsical additions like trap-style “Ay, ay,” hollers thrown in among the sonic whirlwinds. “At the Door” builds around a massive composite juggernaut of guitars and synths, opening into strumming and ethereal bells, and eventually Casablancas crooning away alongside shoirs. The electronic indulgences and shameless belting make for quite a display, and it’s hilarious to imagine anyone predicting this back in the days of “Is This It?” Doo-wop-era horns enter the mix, and Casablances ends up presumably imitating bells, running up and down scales. Most bewildering of all, it somehow works. The vocal treatment, apparently Auto-itune or something similar, seems to help, as the silliness of the whole endeavor ends up something of a saving grace. Similarly, serpentine guitars carve out the stuff of math rock pretension, but are indulged sparingly enough to make for a pleasant touch.
At this stage, it’s clear that Casablancas is working his restless experimental proclivities into the sound. “Why Are Sundays So Depressing?” continues in this lane, starting like standard Strokes fare, but getting decidedly weirder. Off-kilter guitar lines processed in sputtering triplets slant over the standard strumming, like an update on the classic wound. Spacey wah-wah sounds, and solo drivelry add to the conceptual, bombastic mix, and the guitars bask in the glow tith grand stadium gesture. There’s plenty to enjoy here, although the track has considerably more style than substance. Come “Not the Same Anymore,” the Voidz instincts continue to inform the music, in the slightly spacey stylings of the guitars. Otherwise, however, we find old cliches revisited without too much spirit. There seems to be an awareness of a format having outlived its purpose in lines like “And now the door slams shut / The child prisoner grows up.”
Such foreboding lines find their ultimate resolution, or lack thereof, in a final track that effectively encapsulates the new album, shining a light on the nature of the band at this particular moment. “Ode to the Mets” starts with a cartoony intro of two mismatched figures, so outlandish that it seems born out of desperation to escape the confines alluded to in the previous song. Promptly, the band members fall neatly into place, and Casablanca’s classic drawl leads them with a melody surely lifted from somewhere, as it’s simply too familiar. Eventually, he screams again, and by the end, seems a natural rockstar, his voice hovering above the iridescent blend of dueling guitars. The fact that the Strokes can ever even settle into a groove like this is testament to their lasting power as a band. On the other hand, after an album whose most consistent feature might be its balance of hits and misses, we can’t help but admit that it’s likely a transient thrill. Casablancas reflects, “The Rubik’s Cube isn’t solving for us,” presumably a rather outrageously direct acknowledgment that Rick Rubin has proven less than a messiah. He continues, “So pardon, the silence that you’re hearing / Is turnin’ into a deafening, painful, shameful roar.” This could very well be the sound of Casablancas signing off for good. On the other hand, it follows in a long tradition of open-ended suggestions with scattered dry humor. In the end, you’ll likely find yourself lukewarm and uncertain, as Casablancas and crew probably are themselves. The Strokes remain, upon their sixth album, still in limbo. For a band this good, however, it’s hardly a problem.
“The New Abnormal” is available April 10 on Apple Music.