As much as I love The Strokes (because it takes a lot of effort to not like The Strokes), part of me will never forgive them for the “saviours of rock & roll”-shaped member that has penetrated every piece of music journalism since NME first ominously unzipped its jeans back in 2000 for Is This It? Despite living up to this title and then some with a string of uncannily strong records in the first half of the 00s, Julian Casablancas and co. have since seemed to be undecided on whether to progress stylistically or play to their strengths, resulting in two muddled, forgettable releases in 2009’s Angles and 2013’s Comedown Machine.
Nonetheless, a mixture of time-off, steam-building side-projects and slight nostalgia heralded the band’s return with enthusiasm not seen since those early noughties golden years (and golden years they were). The New Abnormal, boasting some gorgeous Basquiat cover art and an eerily timely title, comes off the heels of some very well-received singles. So, it comes to pass, have The Strokes regained their former glory?
The album kicks off with The Adults Are Talking, a track initially off-putting due to its mechanical drum machine beat, but one that instantly becomes familiar with its sugary and driving bassline. It only gets more Strokesy (and noT like your creepy uncle) from there, with harmonising guitars and Julian putting in a peak-Room on Fire vocal performance, following the melodic bassline like a lost child. So far, it’s a reassuring hand on the shoulder for anyone who found themselves shuddering, muttering “this hasn’t even got a riFF“, when confronted with At The Door; even when Julian’s verrrrry impressive (who’dathunk?) falsetto kicks in.
Compositionally, however, the following track Selfless, as equally enjoyable as it is, feels very similar. Something melodically is nigh-on identical, despite a more organic-sounding drum performance and a more impressive vocal turn.
As the album continues, it becomes apparent that Casablancas and his, at this point, iconic set of vocal chords are one of The New Abnormal‘s strongest qualities. While he is no stranger to throwing a curveball here and there, especially with that aforementioned falsetto, he consistently manages to impress with these powerful, oft-beautiful, turns that are, from a technical perspective, some of his best put to record. This somewhat comes, however, at the sacrifice of the gruff, tar-stained (or, by the Doherty-meter of cleanliness, relatively fragrant) attitude that the band came on the scene with. While this personally isn’t as much of a bugbear for me, I foresee it being more of an issue if that’s what attracted you to the band in the first place.
The first blip comes at the admittedly-decent Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus, which was released a couple of days before the album. Despite its very agreeable melodies and energetic drums (as well as that wicked “False… break” bit), The Strokes find themselves, I assume at the behest of Voidz leader Julian, still chasing that 80s/synth-pop crossover, to underwhelming results. The peppy synth hook gets progressively more grating every time it repeats along the track, while Julian’s lyrics, in a midst the “late-night-tried-to-call-you” clichés, drops some “And the 80s bands/Where did they go?” — which makes me want to slit my wrists with a T’Pau LP.
The instrumental aspect of the album is its biggest wildcard. Despite the varied sonic palette, it doesn’t seem like the band can really pull the sounds of new-wave, power-pop and, synth-pop together in a satisfying way. However, a track like Bad Decisions, while showing the band at their most comfortable, adding that flourish of Marr-esque colour to the lead guitar, allows even some of the more predictable moments to be sonically diverse nonetheless.
As the album enters the mid-point, the tempo begins to slow-down. The shamelessly poppy Eternal Summer, while definitely embracing the powder-paint sway of a band like (yes, I’m going there) Coldplay, manages to be an infectious, airy track, with an off-kilter but bearable Richard Butler feature and dynamic production.
Throughout The New Abnormal, the production remains consistently spritely and refreshing. I thought this was strange, with noted maximalist Rick Rubin being listed as producer. However, seeing that mixing has been split evenly between Jason Lader and Ben Baptie, the lack of distorted bass booming through my shattered eardrums made more sense.
A notably well-produced track is lead single At The Door. A confrontationally minimalist instrumentation, with some vintage synths and backing vocals making up the bones of it, the whole track has this pseudo-vintage graininess that channels these 70s-space-age aesthetics really well, despite actually being very sleek. However, the track is primarily carried by the hugely-compelling vocals, with Julian’s emotive “Use me like an oar/And get yourself to shore” lyrics evoking the best Motown ballads. This keeps the track magnetic throughout, despite the droning verse melody quickly getting repetitive.
Unfortunately, as the album reaches its end, it does lose some of the virility. With At The Door comes a steep drop in tempo that never really picks up. Why Are Sundays So Depressing is, ironically enough, probably the closest to Is This It? that we have on the record, with its harmonic guitar leads, even with its intergalactic chorus, drenched in vocal effects and synth bloops. It’s at this point, when we are the closest to “classic Strokes” that it becomes apparent that, despite this being the strongest offering from the band in about 15 years, they’re still missing that songwriting knack that produced so many instant classics. Perhaps it was a matter of chemistry, nostalgia, youth, magic or a mix of the lot, but something is definitely absent.
The plodding, defeated Not The Same is easily the album’s weakest moment. Though it’s fully serviceable as the Super Heroes (any Rocky Horror fans in?) moment on the album, there’s nothing here that the album hasn’t done better, earlier, and the lulling drums do nothing for it except add weight to your eyelids.
In spite of a tonally-bemusing intro, closing track Ode to Mets is enough of an improvement on the track before it that it bows out the album decently enough. The flittering layered guitars provide a nice levity while the bass, which has been *classic* throughout the record, I hasten to add, sails through the instrumental space. Julian’s vocals, complete with an organic cue to Fab, feel like they’ve been mixed straight from a demo, and are all the more charming because of it. It comes together to make a more than satisfying end to The New Abnormal.
Overall, The New Abnormal is easily the best Strokes album we’ve had since First Impressions, with the band delivering one of their most successfully diverse tracklists ever. The band are working with a renewed energy, especially Julian, whose vocals are cut above anything we’ve heard from him before. However, this does come with a loss of attitude and further attempts to be early Depeche Mode. That said, it’s wildly encouraging to see the band in such good form.
best tracks: Selfless, At The Door, Eternal Summer