Just one of several questions we ponder about the band’s long-awaited new album
Artist: The Strokes
Album: The New Abnormal
Label: RCA Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
“What does Julian Casablancas actually want?” is a question central to any serious understanding of Julian Casablancas’ career as a public figure.
It is also a question that, almost by necessity, contains many other questions – questions like “Does Julian Casablancas covet Joe Rogan’s podcasting career?” and “Do members of the Strokes and the Voidz participate in the same Devs text chain?” and “Why did the ‘11th Dimension’ video devolve into a series of outtakes from The Warriors?”
These questions – while amusing to consider – aren’t especially helpful for the subjective, ongoing project that contemporary music criticism purports to be. These are questions for Casablancas, his therapist, his management team, his accountants, his immediate family, and his eventual biographers to grapple with. (Critics inclined to become biographers, go with God.) To create or review The New Abnormal, these questions must be set aside. An objective transcendance must be sought which, if the performers and writers alike are honest with ourselves, will never fully be achieved for listeners born prior to 1994.
The Strokes’ two-decade albatross is the reality that Is This It?, the band’s 2001 debut, really was It. Singer/songwriter Casablancas, bassist Nikolai Fraiture, drummer Fabrizio Moretti, and guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. rendered, too successfully, the urbanite imaginary of being shaggy, intoxicated twentysomething lotharios in a New York City that no longer exists. For those for whom early Strokes are catnip – regardless of whether any of our lives were ever truly this reckless or interesting – this concise, seemingly effortless garage-rock fantasia opens out onto a cognitive pleasure plateau where the music makers and their attendant media narratives are less important than what is experienced: the holographic pose, the frenetic jangle, the heavy-lidded leer. The band caught lightning in a half-full bottle of Absolut Citron for the entire length of an LP just once, then never quite managed to repeat the trick.
If it’s your old copy of Is This It and your hep granny in an oversized First Impressions of Earth tour tee lovingly compiling an 80-minute, post-Is This It playlist as a late Easter present, that’s The Strokes. Which is an indirect way of explaining that, yes, The New Abnormal is Yet Another One Of Those Strokes Albums: synth-pop virtuosity without actual synths, easy credit rip-offs, brief flashes of brilliance, attempts at thematic gamesmanship. If Casablancas is a maddening lyricist – cryptic, clever, very often lazy, leaning gently on fourth walls for support – he’s a brilliant and savvy salesman of whatever The Strokes represent from a lifestyle perspective. When his words, his chosen affect, and the band’s combined contributions line up perfectly – and the steals aren’t too obvious – the results can be magical.
Situated at the new record’s core, “Eternal Summer” is not magical; it’s just baffling, a Frankenstein monster of random ideas. Soul-man crooning soars over clipped, fake-electronic pop, which turns into beat-ass reggae just in time for the lyricism to degrade down to a Spinal Tap/The Darkness level. Whenever “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” comes on, I find myself trying to improve it, holding tightly to core conceits worth considering while trying to mentally rewrite or rewire harmonic and vocal tropes copping so brazenly from Jennifer Lopez, Weezer, Green Day, Morrissey, and New Order that it almost doesn’t matter that the song exists or it’s about. From half-moment to half-moment, “Bridge” mutates, impatient, jittery, urgent to move, unable to commit to a single look in the time it takes to process a breath. These seams aren’t just inescapable; the seams are the songs, in some instances.
In some instances, mind you. “Bad Decisions” borrows too liberally from Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” and Modern English’s “I Melt With You,” but it’s forgiven – it works – because Casablancas turns it into an anthem about fucking up despite knowing better. “Ode to the Mets” rips off the introduction to the Silver Jews’ “The Frontier Index,” but gives us a tender sneak peek at what we’ll get from the Strokes’ eventual, inevitable Las Vegas residency. Spare, cryptic ballad “At the Door” might’ve fit better on a deluxe Phrazes for the Young reissue.
On The New Abnormal, the Strokes manage to get completely out of their own way and into the magic zone – the crucial playlist zone – just twice. There’s the very good: “Selfless,” a perpetually blooming song flower, where the line between falsetto and vocoder cracks, where relationship aspiration could double for romantic indifference. It’s arrogance in defiant denial of terror or culpability: “I’m not scared, just don’t care/I’m not listening, you hear?” Better yet, there’s the great “The Adults Are Talking,” the well-tooled, impeccable opener that seems to exist separately and totally from everything that follows. This is the record’s “Reptilia,” its “Taken For a Fool, its “You Only Live Once,” and it’s easy to imagine this as the one nailed-down demo the band brought in for that initial meeting with producer Rick Rubin, only to cobble the rest together over the ensuing months.
Everything comes together here. Moretti’s pneumatic drums thwop, and his snares sizzle. Valensi and Hammond weave their guitars together into a halcyon double-helix escalator that Fraiture’s bass line compliments, handily. In the middle sits Casablancas, singing (and, strategically, mumbling and gasping) with an odd, glancing lightness of touch, as though he’s an aging antelope chasing its younger self across a frozen lake. A steady-as-she-goes gush of sentiments and images conflates past and present, precisely and less so: “Say it after me/Say it after me.”
There’s nostalgia at work here, but which nostalgia, and whose? What’s the appropriate level of urgency? That the song sets the table and leaves it to us to answer most of its questions is the band’s ultimate gift to us this year.