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The Strokes – The New Abnormal Review

April 13, 2020 | Posted by David Hayter
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The Strokes – The New Abnormal Review  

The end of a decade might an arbitrary concept creating an illusionary distinction between then and now, but, for The Strokes, the opportunity to draw a line under the 2010s felt like an act of rebirth. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to paint the last ten years as a time of middling artistic frustration for New York’s resident riff makers. Both Angles (2011) and Comedown Machine (2013) proved uneven and underwhelming, but outside the studio The Strokes appeared to revelling in the success of their glory years. Cemented into narrative history of rock and roll courtesy of Is This It and their incendiary early-2000s rise, The Strokes could pick and choose when and where they played: headlining sold out festivals or boutique rooms with little rhyme or reason.

The public, perhaps because they were too young or couldn’t hope to secure tickets first time around, flocked to a series of huge standalone shows regardless of whether The Strokes had any new material to debut. By 2017 the band had been immortalized in Meet Me In The Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s best-selling oral history of New York City’s turn-of-the-century rock revolution. No matter what they released or how dodgy the soundsystem pumping out their jams, in the 2010s it seemed that the whole world wanted to be in The Strokes once more. Actually, that’s not quite right, because I can name at least five individuals who had no desire to in band: Julian Casablancas, Nick Valensi, Albert Hammond Jr., Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti.

As early as 2013 – a mere two years into their comeback – The Strokes were sick to death of one another. The recording process for Comedown Machine had proved torturous. Each member had enjoyed at taste of autonomy in the post-First Impressions Of Earth (2005) period and they were not keen to have their voices silenced or fall in line behind a unified sound. Back in the glory days, 100% of The Strokes material was attributed to Julian Casablancas, now songwriting duties were shared: direction, sound and structure were the product of fierce negotiation. This was not a harmonious process, by the time of Comedown Machine’s release The Strokes were so sick of one another that they unilaterally refused to promote the album in any way, shape or form. Julian seemed particularly irked, letting it be known that he was more interested in The Voidz artistically than anything related to The Strokes.

For whatever reason, when the clock struck midnight and calendar turned to 2020, the tune changed. The Strokes were back. They had a brand new album with a beautiful Jean-Michel Basquiat cover to promote and, suddenly, optimism abounds. Not only among anxious fans, but within the band itself. There was talk of turning over a new leaf and drawing a line under the last decade, but more importantly, Julian let it be known that the band were actually having fun creating music as The Strokes. The collective name itself is key, as The New Abnormal is their first album to unambiguously declare that “all the music is composed by The Strokes”.

In other famous rock bands this would be a cause for concern: the switch from a dictatorial vision to a communal song writing approach has often led to a cosy and unsatisfying smudge, but for The Strokes it feels like a weight has been lifted. Every inch of The New Abnormal feels lighter and less inhibited than its direct predecessors. There is plenty of evidence to suggest the band is still being pulled in differing sonic directions, but it’s clear that an effort has been made to reconcile these differences and, crucially, to have fun doing it. The entire album is peppered with little adlibbed exchanges that capture Julian and drummer Fab bantering back and forth like old friends before launching into tales of lonesome longing and self-loathing.

The New Abnormal’s lyric sheet might have a depressive and alienated edge, but the playing feels energized and organic. The collection can be roughly split into two halves: a rapid-fire, riff riding and squirrelly opening suite and a more languorous, slow cooked second half. This mutation miraculously occurs mid-track on the summery saunter of “Eternal Summer”: a shimmering strut of disco guitars so indebted to The Psychdelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You” that Richard and Tim Butler are given songwriting credits. If the verse and bridge are iridescently light, then the chorus is pure dark paranoia. Shadows swirl, the guitars turn mechanically, the bass and guitars lock into rhythm straight off of The Wall as Julian savagely howls: “I can’t believe it…they got no remedy, they won’t let it happen…everybody’s on take, tell me: are you on the take too?”

It’s an irreconcilable stark divide and yet here “Eternal Summer” stands: somehow merging Nile Rodgers’ joy with Roger Waters’ paranoid egoism. It just about works, in large part because the individual elements of the track are so strong, even if the transitions are sandpaper rough. The Strokes deserve credit for their ambition, it might be ill advised, but they have at least tried to tether together their elegant new wave pop jams with Julian’s hulking and wounded balladry. It’s a compromise, but one that stops the band from flailing too far in either direction.

The New Abnormal’s more fully realized half is no doubt its riotous opening onslaught of jagged, scuzzed up and deliciously glitchy riffage. On paper it should be a disaster. The band continue to fall head over heels in love with new wave’s underground image of pop perfection, but refuse to abandon their post-punk scuzz and wilful underproduction (not that Rick Rubin was likely to change that). The immaculate precision and crispness of The Cars should be diametrically opposed to the lethargic fuzz of Television and The Modern Lovers, but somehow The Strokes make it work while riding their typical sharp and increasing sci-fi tinged guitar work.

Julian continues to embrace a softer side of his vocal range: blending his burgeoning falsetto with a deliciously airy delivery that comes to the fore on the sumptuous “Selfless”. If any track is proof that The Strokes can reconcile their differences it is this. Coldly precise guitar work (that has the feel of an endless, neon-lit highway leading to a futuristic metropolis) slips into a delicate web-like jangle as Julian sings of unrequited love (“bite my tongue and wait my turn, I waited for a century/waste my breath, no lessons learned, I turn and face the enemy”). Casablancas hasn’t sounded this poetic or quotable in a decade. The harsh contrast between his self-excoriating desperation and a winsome, more level-headed, sense of perspective suggest that the NYC Lothario who crawled from bedroom to bedroom on Is This It may finally be coming of age.

There are strong echoes of their former glories, but none of these dazzling indie-disco anthems in-waiting (were there still any rock clubs left to play them) feel retrospective. “The Adults Are Talking” feels like another great Strokes’ album opener. The guitars fizzle with sexual tension. They bubble, skip and bounce into Julian’s bristling chorus, which details our knotty 21st century social contract (we try to reconcile personal autonomy and individual identity with career advancement and financial need). How can we respect ourselves (or our love ones) when we are made hypocrites each and every day, just to pay the rent?

Still, at least Julian is trying to live, love and salvage self-respect on the album opener, by the time “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus” rolls around, he’s plunged into full depressive isolation – albeit backed by an unrelenting onslaught of precision engineered guitarwork. Albert and Nick’s guitars are painting a futuristic skyline with a cascade of iridescent sparks while Julian drolly resigns from social life: “I want new friends, but they don’t want me/They’re making plans as I watch tv/Thought it was them, but maybe it’s me”.

For a guy who is too apathetic to even try and make plans and secure anything resembling companionship, Julian sure is having a whale of time. The New Abnormal is brought to life by Julian’s most esoteric and enigmatic vocal performance to date; his verses are defined by wild tonal shifts and a host of deadpan vocal asides. Perhaps The Strokes are having so much fun that they’ve given up the ghost and abandoned their pretences. Their influences have always been obvious, albeit immaculately chosen, but The New Abnormal doesn’t even bother to disguise them. “Bad Decisions” follows “Enteral Summer” in having to directly credit its source material, in this case, Billy Idols’ “Dancing With Myself”. The effect is less like theft and more like glorious karaoke. It is as though Julian woke up and decided: “fuck it, I just want to be Billy Idol for the day” and as such the obvious interpolation proves strangely charming. Reassuringly, for those concerned with originality, Julian’s depraved post-chorus bridge (“pick up your gun, put up those gloves”) proves more effective than any of the borrowed elements.  Although it is strange that this mea culpa, which alludes to the band’s relationships with their fans and their own creative failings, seemingly concludes that their restoration lies in undisguised imitation.

The ballad driven back end of the album that plays like a spacey swamp of indecision and discomfort is more of a mixed bag. Lead single “At The Door” is a masterwork destined to alienate audiences. This unashamedly rhythm-less synthetic dirge is all about agony. Each note and every second is drawn out into a gruelling slow creep to provide the backdrop for the most exquisite vocal and lyrical performance of Julian Casablancas’ career to date. Of course this doesn’t necessarily result in a truly great song: “At The Door” is more of an experiential mood piece defined by one gloriously nihilistic romantic gesture (“use me like an oar, get yourself to shore”). It is an ungodly powerful lyric, both tender and dark, a noble act of self-immolation. In it depression is recast as heroism and vice versa. Once Julian is done sinking like stone, he arrives on the other side: disembodied, spectral and crooning in the knowingly ironic tones of John Maus’ We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves. This confounding ending alludes to a cosmic joke: our grand cinematic gestures lead to abject nothingness – so was it worth it? Is this, truly, it?

The tracks that follow cannot hope to compete. “Why Are Sunday’s So Depressing” and “Not The Same Anymore” are prettily abject and perhaps more satisfying tonally, but they struggle to land anything resembling a gut punch. The latter is lovingly sleazily: the ideal Bond theme for Daniel Craig’s contractual required 51st instalment where James can’t be fucked to leave the his London pad and decides he’d be happier binge watching Killing Eve and imbibing litres of scotch while writing Moneypenny cryptic pseudo lover letters/cries for help on whatsapp. “Why Are Sunday’s So Depressing” is, bizarrely, far less depressing. Instead, the faux profundity of John Maus remerges alongside a distinctly Anglo-Saxon (and camp) deadpan vocal delivery. There is a certain to joy to following Julian as he drifts from one performative tangent to the next, but the ensuing ennui fails to round into anything resembling interesting or resolved songcraft.

Thankfully, “Ode To The Mets” is on hand to steer the ship into habor. Before Julian has sung a single syllable, The Strokes swing into action to conjure an arrangement that seeps and swoons with forlorn romanticism. The sepia-toned-scuzz of their glory years is bleeding out in slow motion. Like its predecessors, “Ode To The Mets” doesn’t swell into anything resembling a traditional torch song; instead Julian drifts between peaks and valleys as he is carried away by piques of poetic inspiration one moment, before slumping into mournful inertia the next: “Innocent time, out on his own/Not gonna do that, fuck, I’m out of control/I was just bored playing guitar, learnt all your tricks, wasn’t too hard”.

There is an unmistakable beauty in watching a band once famed for their youth and beauty looking back and reflecting on how the site of their moment in the sun has not only been “swallowed” and “silenced”, but pathed over and erased, while they themselves still stand. The New York City of old is gone, but they remain with a job to do and relationships to nominally retain. “The only thing that’s left is us, so pardon [that] the silence that you’re hearing is turning into a deafening, painful, shameful roar”. It’s haunting and beautiful endnote, but it does not depict The New Abnormal as a whole. The Strokes haven’t crafted a desperate howl in the dark. For all the album’s brooding confusion and stifled romanticism, this isn’t a retrospective “after the party, we are what remains” record. They are key themes without question, but The New Abnormal is in fact a surprisingly joyous reminder that five older-but-no-wiser scene survivors can do more than merely co-exist: they can be friends, they can harmonize and, most importantly, they can rip it up.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Happy and harmonious, but still pulling in wildly different directions, The Strokes return with The New Abnormal: their most engaging and energized release since 2005. Julian is cutting loose, the band feel like friends and while the collaborative approach occasionally leads to meandering dead ends, more often than not Julian's most haunting and poetic lyrics are combined with dazzlingly guitar driven arrangements on this album of two distinct halves.

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The Strokes, David Hayter