The Curious Case Of The Strokes
Once upon a time, The Strokes were the hottest band on the planet. They were popular even before their debut album Is this It was released in October 2001. The music press hailed them as torchbearers of The Velvet Underground and Television and made it sound like The Strokes would restore balance to the universe with their music. Of course there was some embellishment going on but for the most part, Is this It deserved the praise it received because the songs and musicianship were great. Did it help that the five guys in the band looked hand-picked to play the part as 21st-century rock n' roll saviors? Of course, but for a few years in the early 2000's, The Strokes more than lived up to their end of the bargain by touring relentlessly and releasing two albums (Is this It and Room On Fire) that sounded similar in a good way, with Julian Casablancas' cooler-than-thou vocal delivery backed by a band that sounded simultaneously relaxed, precise, and anxious to prove themselves.
The Strokes began experimenting with their sound on their third album First Impressions Of Earth and since that time every album has been a mixed bag. They contain flashes of brilliance for two or three songs but for the most part get bogged down by the weight of the band searching for ways not to sound like The Strokes of old. The band's desire to evolve and not just repeat Is This It over and over is understandable and their willingness to experiment is commendable but it has ultimately been at the expense of a unique rock sound that helped many young people cope with the challenges of adulthood in the post-911 era. Is This It and Room On Fire were perfect escape music that lasted just long enough to listen to while on your lunch break or between classes and the music was undeniably produced by a band that was hungry, talented, and way-cool. In comparison, their post Room On Fire output has left many wondering where the desire, energy, and joy has gone and why it has seemingly been replaced by a lack of urgency and a loss of musical identity.
Fast-Forward nearly two decades after Is this It was released and The Strokes are still hanging around. The rock music landscape has drastically changed and many of their peers (The Yeah Yeah Yeah's, The Walkmen, The White Stripes...) either stopped releasing music or have been largely forgotten by mainstream media. Needless-to-say, The Strokes are one of the last remaining bands from the golden era of rock music that took place in the early 2000's and for that reason we keep hoping for a return to form despite continuously being at least halfway let down by their post Room On Fire discography. The New Abnormal continues this trend of cautious anticipation and muted expectations being met with an album that pretty much delivers exactly what you would expect a new album by The Strokes to sound like in 2020, the musical equivalent of a shrugged shoulders emoji. The New Abnormal doesn't clear a new and exciting musical path or spend much time looking to the band's past for inspiration. Instead, it finds The Strokes delivering a small number of unusually long songs that are, for the most part, uninspired. In short, this is the sound of a band not only going through the motions, but doing so while standing in quicksand sipping cocktails and not really caring about what anyone else thinks.
The two songs on The New Abnormal that sound the most like The Strokes are "Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus" and "Bad Decisions". On the former, Casabalancas sings about the 1980's and wanting "new friends" over an appropriately 80's sounding synth driven melody. "Bad Decisions" feels like it could have been a song written by an 80's band that was put in a time-capsule discovered by The Strokes outside of the recording studio but somehow they made the most of it and put together one of their better performances on record in recent memory. On the track, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. play memorable riffs that fit together perfectly and drummer Fabrizio Moretti lays down a tom-tom heavy beat during the verse punctuated by a low-end groove from bassist Nikolai Fraiture.
Unfortunately, the real bad decision here was the band's inability to make a complete album that is representative of each of its member's true talents. Songs like the meandering "At The Door" with its persistent synth line, use of falsetto, and lack of drums sound misplaced and would probably work better in the context of a Casablancas solo record. "Not The Same Anymore" would have been better served had the band played it at a tempo that didn't sound like they were about to go to sleep. The real travesty of The New Abnormal is that there are moments in many of the songs where the band sounds really good and comfortable being themselves, but these moments are few and far between due to the length and slower tempo of the songs. For a band that used to pride itself of brevity (Room On Fire clocked in at a grand total of 32:15), The New Abnormal presents a version of The Strokes that seems content taking its time with no real destination or sense of purpose. If the room is still on fire, The Strokes are in no rush to get out. Rating- 4.7