The Strokes’ 6th Studio LP is both unexpected and reassuring, delivering sounds new and old, but most importantly, showing that the Strokes want to be The Strokes again.
Believe it or not, it has been seven years since the release of The Strokes’ last LP Comedown Machine; an album shrouded by the band’s disunity and apathy. In a recent YouTube video released by the band entitled “5 guys talking about stuff they know nothing about”, it turned out that Comedown Machine was exactly that, an album the band had collectively forgotten.
Upon its release, the band held a ‘media blackout’, and refused to tour the album, choosing instead to play a string of festival dates from 2015 onwards. Oddly enough, The Strokes appear more present in a live setting than at any other time in their career. Sadly, their lifeless performances of Is This It classics have become a convenient money-maker for Julian and Co to finance side-projects rather than a fulfilling project for the whole band.
With the arrival of The New Abnormal, however, The Strokes appear to be resetting their channels and retuning themselves for the 2020s as an invigorated, enthused and confident band. Indeed, at their recent New Year’s Eve concert in New York, frontman Casablancas jokingly announced to the crowd as the clock struck twelve, “we’ve been unfrozen, and now we’re back”, before launching into album closer ‘Ode to The Mets’. This, coupled with their triumphant Bernie Sanders fundraiser concert in which police leapt onto the stage to try and stop the gig before the band went into riotous ‘New York City Cops’, shows new-found confidence and enthusiasm within the group.
So how does this translate on record?
Well, on The New Abnormal, The Strokes undeniably have a new-found angle (no pun intended) and edge; the tracks are longer and instrumentally looser. For an album with only nine tracks, it sits at 45 minutes run-time, which is longer than both Strokes’ classics Is This it and Room on Fire.
Experimental tracks such as ‘Eternal Summer’ and ‘At the Door’ teeter around the 5 to 6-minute mark, which is rare for a band so well-known for nuts and bolts rock n’ roll simplicity. They include conversations from the band in-between song takes, (“the click was always in you Fab” and “let’s try it again, old tempo, old everything”) and smarmily leave in mistakes on the aforementioned ‘Ode to the Mets’ (“Drums please Fab”). The Strokes of the 2020s are actively inviting you into their world, maybe even trying a bit too hard to show that they’re a ‘real’ band.
Throughout the record, Julian Casablancas’ falsetto is a triumph. On the beautifully arranged second-track ‘Selfless’, Casablancas’ voice reaches dizzying heights as he confesses his selfless adoration for a nameless lover “Life is short / But I will live for you.” ‘Selfless’ shows The Strokes at their most peaceful and poignant; it is a track that has slowly become one of my favourites on the new record.
Unfortunately, the biggest bum-note of the album is 80s inspired, synth-led ‘Brooklyn Bridge to the Chorus’. Its cheesy 80s lyrics almost seem like an ill-conceived New Order parody (“One shot is never enough”) and its robotic chorus feels like an after-thought from Casablancas’ failed solo album Phrazes for the Young. When Casablancas sings “can we skip to the chorus, right now”, we get that it’s ironic. But I’d rather skip the song entirely.
Another 80s inspired number ‘Bad Decisions’ was infectious upon first listen, but has meant less to me with every replay. It is instrumentally inspired by the 80s and The Strokes’ own past, with an opening riff that screams New Order, and a chorus that seems like it could have been borrowed from Room on Fire. The track’s meaning is difficult to pin down, but musically it suggests that their old sound is something that can be worn easily but doesn’t mean much to them anymore.
The album glides forth with the next two tracks ‘Why Are Sundays so Depressing’ and ‘Not the Same Anymore’. The former begins with a simple but crisply recorded drum-beat and a fittingly simple guitar riff. Upon first listen, the throbbing, squelchy synths during the monotonous chorus; “I want your time” was a big turn off, but I was eventually won over yet again by Casablancas’ charismatic delivery on the verses.
‘Not the Same Anymore’ is probably the most generically composed track on the album. The guitar parts are strong, and the lyrics are interestingly confessional for a Strokes album: “I was afraid / I fucked up”, but the song perhaps has its foot too firmly placed in the traditional Strokes camp and fails to do anything experimental.
‘Eternal Summer’, the longest track on the album at a barmy 6 minutes and seventeen seconds, is a psychedelic step in a new direction. The opening, swelling synths travel from the right channel to the left, and Casablancas’ falsetto is near perfect: “When I think of you / You’re always on my mind”. Instrumentally, The Strokes have never been this loose. While its bridge reminded some of ‘The Ghost in You’ by the Psychedelic Furs, its punchy chorus and chaotic, dissonant climax is new territory for The Strokes.
Lead single ‘At the Door’ is also something new. The track is dark and romantic, comprising mostly of Julian’s voice and a single synth. Here, Casablancas is lyrically and melodically at his strongest, with his voice pained but varied. He paints the picture of someone trapped by their own psyche and may be his most visually creative lyric ever, “use me like an oar / to get yourself to shore”. It’s dramatic, a bit silly and a bit cliché, but is so well delivered that it doesn’t matter.
The album closer ‘Ode to the Mets’ is arguably the most ambitious piece of music the Strokes have ever recorded. A six-minute epic, with a sinister guitar line that pulls off simultaneously sounding like both a synth and swooning strings, sets the stage for Casablancas to deliver another exceptional vocal performance. The lyrics here are yet again vague, with our protagonist described as not “wanting to wake up here anymore”, declaring what’s “on his mind” but also described as being “under someone’s thumb”. Much like ‘At the Door’, the melody here is so powerful, especially in the outro, that it almost permits Casablancas’ lyrics to be about anything.
In blending new and old, The New Abnormal is a decided return to form for The Strokes. Not everything on here works, but when it does, it’s pure bliss. The Strokes are back, and this is it.