A REVIEW BY
Let’s play a game: I name a band. You try to tell me whether it’s cool, or was ever cool, to like that band.
The inability to say whether The Strokes are or were cool has much to do with their current challenge. When the band released its debut album, Is This It, in 2001, it was asked to both revive garage rock and launch the modern incarnation of indie rock, all the while remaining coolly detached. And they did it: You’ll find Is This It near the top of most “Best Albums of the Aughts” lists. Somehow, a group of angsty New York City hardly-adults, who met while attending uptown prep schools by day and downtown rock clubs by night, had struck the magic balance between trying too hard and not trying hard enough.
But it’s a tricky tightrope to walk, especially for extended periods of time: The conventional wisdom about The Strokes is that listening to their albums in chronological order would be like watching flowers (or something more rock ‘n’ roll) wilt before your very eyes. Their second-to-most-recent album, Angles, released in 2011 after a mysterious five-year hiatus, was especially disappointing.
Most reviews I’ve read of The Strokes’ latest effort, Comedown Machine, released on March 26 by RCA, consider it to be an extension of that trajectory. A 67% Metacritic rating says about the same. But here I stand in defiance of Pitchfork and co.: I think Comedown Machine is quite good. Great, even.
I should say, though, that my expectations were low. The Strokes don’t tour anymore—at least, they’ve said they won’t tour in support of this album. They effectively don’t grant interviews—to the best of my knowledge, there has only been one during the promotion for Comedown Machine. There may have been a moment when I thought that this sort of behavior emerged merely from charming aloofness, but, when the decidedly weird “One Way Trigger” was the first song to be leaked from the album—I’ve yet to come across a critic who hasn’t compared the track to A-ha’s ‘80s anthem “Take on Me”—I suspected less flattering causes.
I began to change my mind when I saw the music video for Comedown Machine’s lead single, “All the Time.” The video is a montage of past concerts, music videos, and tour bus moments. As the nostalgic images fly by, frontman and primary songwriter Julian Casablancas sings, “All the time that I need is never quite enough.” It finally occurred to me: He’s just as worried about the passage of time as his critics are. The Strokes are cool, but not that cool—they aren’t entirely un-self-conscious. They know that they set the bar too high with Is This It and its follow-up, Room on Fire; they know that to revive past success is not simply to copy and paste.
Comedown Machine is an attempt to wrestle with that recognition. It’s a project conceived of as the next step in a musical evolution, rather than as a re-creation of the past. To be sure, some of the tracks feel retrospective: Along with “All the Time,” “50/50,” with its muscular guitar riffs and grizzled vocals, is the stuff of the old Strokes. The vintage RCA tape box cover art is another tip of the hat to The Strokes’ roots (and, one suspects, to the fact that this album completes the band’s five-album mega-contract with RCA)—a reminder that they were, and will always be, deeply influenced by the Velvet Underground and Television.
But for the most part, the sounds are new for The Strokes. The most obvious and aggressive change is that Casablancas sings in falsetto for much of the album. Is this really the same singer whom “Last Nite” made famous? A novel array of sounds and influences peppers the album, from Casio keyboards to Latin dance tunes to synthpop from the disco. If nothing else, Casablancas’ well-publicized obsession with the ’80s has come to a head. The album is strongest for me near its middle, where it reaches the peak of this sonic shift: The Strokes follow the dreamlike, synth-saturated “80’s Comedown Machine” with the meandering but steadily building “Slow Animals,” and then the entrancingly wistful “Partners in Crime.”
After a few listens, then, I found the album to be as intriguing as it is listenable. But above all, it still felt strangely distant. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t The Strokes whom I’d first heard in middle school, put aside, and then listened to compulsively in high school. Frankly, I was sort of upset that I liked the album. Along these lines, some critics have suggested that this is hardly a Strokes album; it does, indeed, recall Casablancas’ solo album, Phrazes for the Young, far more than it recalls any Strokes album proper. But it’s worth noting that, whereas Casablancas simply mailed in (in both senses) his contributions to Angles, he recorded Comedown Machine in the same room as the rest of the quintet. I think it shows.
Because it’s also worth noting that, you know, I’m not in middle or high school anymore. If you want a Strokes album from 2001 or 2003, you’ll hate this one. But if you want a good album, you might just like Comedown Machine. After all, good albums are good even when they don’t sound like their predecessors. Just ask The Beatles.
What’s more, the album is plain fun: “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?” Casablancas asks on an album highlight, “Welcome to Japan.” When I try to think of The Strokes’ essence, as if such a thing exists, I think of that sort of line. Believe it or not, there was once a time when it seemed like The Strokes were having fun. The most important feature of Comedown Machine is that it doesn’t sound disembodied; it may not sound like it’s coming from the old Strokes, but it still sounds like it’s coming from The Strokes.
At least, that seems to be what the band intended. For all the departures from the original Strokes sound, the thematic thrust remains similar: Casablancas has always been concerned about the relationship between former and present selves, about fleeting time and how to capture it.
I suspect that that’s why the moment on Comedown Machine that gave me the most pause is when the bassline picks up during “Chances.” In so doing, it recalls “Someday,” another bass-driven Strokes track and a canonized highlight from Is This It. “In many ways, they’ll miss the good old days,” that song begins. When I first heard “Someday” in middle school, I probably thought it was catchy. And when I heard the song again in high school, I remember imagining that it would mean more to me later—that someday, I’d really miss the good old days. I suppose we all do: When I sort my iTunes by plays, “12:51” is still in the top spot, by a wide margin. But The Strokes grew up, and maybe we ought to, too.