That we have a new Strokes album is something of a minor miracle.
How do you establish your identity as an artist after the entire music press has created it on the basis of a few songs? This is the question the Strokes have been asking since 2003. Their first album, Is This It?, is still one of the best debut albums of all time, but the hype was so all-consuming that everything the Strokes have done since seems like an effort to distance themselves from that beginning. They’ve tried everything from abrasive cock-rock (First Impressions of Earth to spacey, offbeat synth experiments (their last two albums, essentially), but they’ve never quite been able to shed that identity. Thus the band has framed The New Abnormal as a sort of rebirth, a return to enlightened society after a decade wandering in the wilderness. Incredibly, that isn’t as much of an oversell as one would expect.
Since they reconvened in 2011, the defining characteristic of the Strokes has been inconsistency. Whatever merits Angles and Comedown Machine may have (and they were both better than people remember) were bogged down by the sharp left turns that came as a result of five individual songwriters unable to reach a consensus. As such, attempts to recapture the glory days of early Strokes were placed alongside self-consciously weird experiments with little consideration. The New Abnormal doesn’t have that problem. For the first time since Room on Fire, the band have arrived at a fully-formed, consistent sound. Some aspects of classic Strokes are still there–that rhythm section is as tight and metronomic as it has ever been–but they also incorporate some of the ideas that anchored their previous studio experiments into fully-formed songs. Albert Hammond and Nick Valensi’s guitars alternate between gritty and warm tones, while Julian Casablancas brings back the strangely affecting falsetto that carried his collaboration with Daft Punk. For the first time in years, a Strokes album sounds like it was made by a proper band.
However, the band’s past continues to haunt them, if only in how their songwriting method has changed over time. In comparison to the tight, concise Strokes albums of old, The New Abnormal is a shaggy-dog album if there ever was one. Where the band used to bring songs to an abrupt stop, they now stretch them out, allowing studio chatter to bleed in. What’s more, even with only nine tracks to pick from, the album comes up short on songs. The front half is absolutely loaded, with opener “The Adults are Talking” and single “Bad Decisions” among the undeniable highlights. However, the dour second half of the album fails to grab the listener. Elements are striking: Julian Casablancas’ lyrics on “Not the Same Anymore” and “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” are the most emotionally vulnerable things he’s ever written for the Strokes, and they do nail that delicate mix of detached cool and melancholy on the closing track “Ode to the Mets.” Mostly, though, the songs drag for a little longer than they need to, and over repeated listens, that can be numbing.
Still, that we have a new Strokes album is something of a minor miracle; all of the band members have made it clear that their solo projects are a bigger priority. It makes sense that they would think that way, too, as it seems every new Strokes project was fighting a losing battle with fans who, at the end of the day, just really want the early ‘00s to come back. The New Abnormal probably won’t satisfy those fans, but it demonstrates that the Strokes may still have a bright future ahead of them.