Published on May 4th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The Strokes – The New Abnormal
The Strokes are back with a new album, The New Abnormal, an album that musically reflects where they and many of their listeners are now.
Were The Strokes ever really gone?
Almost every review for their new album exclaims, in one way or another, “They’re back!” But they don’t mean “back” in the sense of releasing their first new album in almost a decade. It’s “BACK!” as in back from the dead, back to remind us why everyone was so excited about them when they burst onto the scene twenty years ago.
Scrubbed from so many people’s memory, it seems, are albums like Angles and Comedown Machine. I’ll admit they weren’t great records front to back, but they were still Strokes records. People seem to talk about them as if they were performed by some kind of doppelganger, the band’s evil twin, hell-bent on running their signature plucky, garage rock sound into the dirt. Hell, you could even go back to First Impressions of Earth and Room on Fire and hear a bitter discourse. “Sounds the same.” “No growth.” But were they ever supposed to be more than catchy rock records? The band’s debut Is This It was such an instant classic, such a kick in the balls for the rock community, that The Strokes were kind of always doomed to be put on a pedestal that they never really wanted to climb. I don’t know about you, but they never struck me as the over-achieving type.
That being said, The New Abnormal is a satisfying, but tempered pivot for a band that has already hit its 20th birthday. One that has certainly seemed to quiet the haters, or at least imbued them with a corny sense of pride in the band-they-used-to-love’s evolution. The record can’t help but have a maturity, a world-weariness that immunizes it from the typical jaded approach that many audiences have toward rock music these days. Especially when tracks like ‘At the Door,’ ‘The Adults Are Talking,’ and ‘Ode to the Mets’ form a concrete beginning, middle, and end—an attempt to structure the album around a more demure, cool-and-collected version of the band.
Shades of the various members’ solo projects find their way into the frame as well, projects that embraced thinking outside of the big, brand-name rock politics. The tempos reflect a band whose members are entering their 40s. Not that they don’t rock, but they do it with the sophistication of a wise old sage rather than the collective spunk of a bunch of angsty twenty-somethings. It’s a kind of reverse-engineered approach to a Strokes record, one that wasn’t necessarily needed (time tends to heal all wounds) but is surely welcome. It strikes me as inevitable that the band dissected itself, had its members evolve on their own, and then re-assembled what remained. This way, it’s approached as anything but a Strokes album. And through that inevitable approach, The Strokes are re-discovered along the way.
As mentioned earlier, ‘The Adults Are Talking’ kicks things off with a meticulous and repetitive bassline, typical of classic Strokes, but this time slowed down and left largely to its own devices. One half expects a big break to come, the guitars to come galloping in to save the day and for Julian Casablancas’ voice to heave itself into a boxy hook. Instead we get a Julian who sounds half asleep, taking that famous mumble and making it even more lethargic. The song becomes something like a cheeky twist on the ideal album opener, made all the more ironic by lyrics like “We are tryin’ hard to get your attention/Climbing up your wall.” If there’s a thesis statement so far, its that the only way to win people’s attention is to truly let go, to not give a fuck about expectations. And so a record that could easily play as a bit uptight and arrogant instead sizzles with effortless cool.
The record takes a turn into a few tracks more prototypical of the sound the band bought their houses with. ‘Selfless’ is a lovely little number that showcases Julian’s vocal range and tessellates between cute and abrasive in that oh-so-familiar way. ‘Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus’ and ‘Bad Decisions’ sound like they’d fit in on an album like Is This It or Room on Fire, a quality that simultaneously feels like a real accomplishment and a formulaic concoction. They are catchy as hell, perhaps a little too catchy for an album that has set itself up to be an album by grown-ups for grown ups. Lyrics like “I want new friends, but they don’t want me,” and “Making bad decisions with you,” embrace a youthful ennui that suggests the band hasn’t really grown up much at all. But perhaps that’s the point? Perhaps the whole reason The Strokes came back when they did was to deliver a message, to embody the ways people can age but remain stagnant, how they can find themselves just as dissatisfied as they were in their youth. A little dose of conventionality goes a long way for a band that has a history of quickly mutating from fresh to conventional in people’s minds. Perhaps the message is that a tiger can’t change its stripes.
If that is the case, then the second half of the record paints a picture of a band not necessarily trying to change who they are, but rather show that they’re in a different phase of their lives—perhaps one in which self-awareness comes into focus. ‘Eternal Summer’ is like a scatter-brained psychedelic jam session that would seem too messy if it wasn’t just what the doctor ordered for that point in the album. ‘At the Door’ really brings the band into the year 2020, taking a page out of the playbook Julian has used with his side projects. The crux of the song is expectedly punchy, yet it replaces guitars for synths for its verse and when the guitars do kick in, they ultimately service the song’s spaced-out vibe. Minimal and atmospheric, they are set dressing for what can only be described as Julian’s big number. He gets to croon with that fuzzy lo-fi effect in such a prominent way that it conjures an image of the singer alone on a remote planet in which there is no other sound than his yearning for light years.
The final three tracks, ‘Why Are Sundays So Depressing,’ ‘Not the Same Anymore,’ and ‘Ode to the Mets’ really wind the album down, all carrying a steady but not exactly danceable beat. They serve as a melancholy, forlorn clincher for this New Abnormal version of the band. The band completes an arc formed throughout the whole record. One that starts very moody, thrusts into a burst of energy, and then crashes heavy on the comedown. Almost like a drug trip, the band takes you through a series of emotions, unique yet still tethered to the same spirit.
By the normal metric that one would judge an indie rock record, it’s a daring mess—a band that doesn’t know who or what to be. But as a portrait of a version of The Strokes that is ageing into a series of inevitable middle crises, it works beautifully. A comeback album that really justifies its existence by making it, if anything, about the act of coming back, of trying to recapture the magic of the past but also add a fresh spin that is true to the present moment. The Strokes are back, but only because everyone decided they left. This album exists to remind people that while they have found a new purpose, the old Strokes never really went extinct. They were simply waiting for the right time to reveal a unique side of themselves that only time could extract. They’re still as fresh now as they were twenty years ago. It’s the world around them that has developed a bitter taste in its mouth.