Marking the inexorable shift into a post-1990s phase of rock heroism, New York City’s The Strokes may be the most recent guitar band that was able to have its cake and eat it, too. Artistically singular, wildly popular and championed by the press, it came to epitomize the hipster era of aspirational standoffishness. Through nearly two decades and five albums, the culture-bearing entity known as The Strokes has since been damned as much for sonic adventurousness as for failing to expand on its groundbreaking first efforts.
The Strokes are now an old guy band, insofar as they project from the perspective of having made it in rock almost 20 years ago.
Opener “The Adults Are Talking” leaps out with fine harmonic counterpoint from the Strokes’ two bad boys of guitar. Albert Hammond, Jr. keeps the rhythm section on task with spirited pseudo-leads. He’s joined by Nick Valensi’s little choice chops, and the two converse in a spacey delay-laden twin guitar solo. The urgency of “The Modern Age” echoes down through rock history as vocalist Julian Casablancas stretches his falsetto, channeling a gasping, exasperated Thom Yorke. Restrained open hi-hat work by drummer Fabrizio Moretti nails the sense of optimistic drive the Strokes perfected in the early 2000s.
For those who recall the Stokes’ early ascendancy, it’s hard to miss the message of “Adults.” The New York scene favorites lay claim to their legacy with upbeat guitar robotics and rhythmic pinball precision. Casablancas winds things down with a series of tired moans. After the acute experiments of Angles and 2013’s obscure Comedown Machine, The Strokes sound like themselves again—relaxed and liberated.
But what legacy is theirs to claim? A millennial legacy, to be sure. Accolades quickly turned to expectations, as myriad bands emerged in the wake of the Strokes’ 2001 full-length debut, the still viable Is This It. Few of those bands, however, stuck around to see where post-1990s rock would land them. As initial torchbearers of the New New Wave movement, The Strokes doggedly enter their third decade as a band. Impressively still featuring their original lineup, the eternally hip quintet wades into middle-aged stabilization.
Sympathetic nostalgia colors much of the album. Underdog anthem “Ode To The Mets” arrives winningly with an earworm chorus. New York’s “other team” carries the day in the boroughs, and the Strokes couldn’t be more stoked. The song hits like a walk-off home run, keeping them in the wild card race. Nevertheless, for both the band and the baseball team, reminiscence and almost-rans are the tearful subtexts of a glorious day in the sun.
Elsewhere, Casablancas aims for Coldplay-like plaintiveness on the gentle “Selfless.” The song soundtracks a walk down memory lane, a revelation of vulnerability near a rainy, shuttered Coney Island. While “The Adults Are Talking” explores dynamic space, the void in “Selfless” is listless and untethered. The sense of gray is relentless, tempered only by Casablancas’ relative humanity. The laid-back ambience expands The Strokes’ sound from pop soundbites to a pervasive atmosphere appropriate to their lingering influence.
On their most acclaimed works, the Strokes displayed limited range. The trail they blazed in the early 2000s looked like a lot of fun for those who could dig the music. Problematically, the entire scene was long on style and short on ideas. Strokes never matched the strident vitality of their first album. They got to be rock stars, media darlings even, but the star-making machine ran out of gas on them. The hype isn’t their fault, per se. Nevertheless, it has turned out to be their problem. Tirelessly, The Strokes are compared to themselves, or to an illusion of themselves they seemingly might have been.
All the more significant, then, that new ground is broken on The New Abnormal. “Eternal Summer” may represent the weirdest they’ve ever gotten. Casablancas’ unabashed love of pop vocals verges on the overweening, as he adopts everyone from Deniece Williams to Morrissey. Maybe he overdoes it a bit. But the overreach is used effectively in “Eternal Summer” as a contrast to a throaty shouting chorus, which strongly invokes British pub chant-alongs.
Single “Bad Decisions” humanizes 1980s MTV trash, paraphrasing Modern English hooks to push warm lyrics. Casablancas approximates Bono for a hot second and the guitars trip over each other to a shambolic end. The annoyingly titled “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” finds Casablancas evoking his best Lou Reed drawl until he gives way to an overlong computerized guitar solo. “I’m still hungry,” he slurs, while Valensi and Hammond, Jr. keep the beat steadily loping along.
Lost-youth cringer “Not The Same Anymore” lands with some gravity and centers the disc thematically. The song provides an emotional center for the album, with direct conversational lyrics and vocals by Casablancas again leading the way. “And now the door slams shut, a child prisoner grows up,” he cryptically cracks over last-call chord changes. Such faded content is borne along by slow-burn simplicity, punctuated by a fist-pumping payoff. Falling action is given voice as bassist Nikolai Fraiture leads an extended melodic outro. It’s another keeper.
Above all else, the expanded format works. Never before have The Strokes given us more than one song longer than five minutes on an album. Here the majority of the tracks approach or exceed that mark, giving the songs a newfound breathing room and allowing the band to lay back into its swimming grooves. Though the stilted rhythms manifest a patent stiffness—a stiffness leavened by Casablancas’ relatable sway—it’s refreshing to hear the band play unhindered by the constraints of the pop format.
Meanwhile, all-star producer Rick Rubin’s resurrecting touch and the long-form approach to the songs aids the Strokes in what is, depending on one’s perspective, either a comeback album, or a deeper dive into more of the same. Because it’s the Strokes, maybe it can be both.
Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Instagram.com/writheinsmoke.