Album Review: The Strokes—’The New Abnormal’

Posted: by The Editor

The Strokes are a band that lives under the microscope of expectations. The NYC band’s 2001 debut, Is This It, is hailed as a modern classic; a half-hour jam-packed with indie rock anthems. However, with such a strong start, each succeeding effort faced a comparison. 2003’s Room on Fire was almost as well-received, but 2005’s First Impressions of Earth, despite its many great songs, was understandably found to be overlong and uneven. 2011’s new-wave/synthpop-inspired Angles was mostly forgettable, and 2013’s dreamy and angular Comedown Machine was an underrated effort that was unfortunately marred at times by vocalist Julian Casablancas’ uneven vocal performance.

After that record, Casablancas seemed to make his side-project The Voidz his primary creative project, but in 2016, The Strokes reconvened for a middling three-song EP called Future Present Past. The trudging “Drag Queen” seemed to represent a possible future direction for the band—one that sounded like a less interesting Voidz, who were already a polarizing act. At that point, the future for The Strokes looked to be an underwhelming “drag.” 

Now, after a brief hiatus, The Strokes have made another return and seem fully refreshed with a new sense of purpose. The New Abnormal (produced by rock and hip-hop heavyweight Rick Rubin) is nine songs, which makes it the shortest tracklist in their discography, but at 45 minutes it’s actually their second-longest album after First Impressions of Earth.

The smooth “Adults Are Talking” starts off the record with a lone drum machine, bearing resemblance to the laid back of music of Comedown Machine–but Casablancas finds his footing immediately. His vocals are upfront, comprehensible, and on the mark. He’s still no lyrical wizard (“Stockholders / Same shit, a different lie” is a rather amusing line), but hearing his words granted a soul to the songs, and right off the bat, The Strokes have outdone most of the songs on their two preceding records. 

He also utilizes his falsetto to better effect, like on the succeeding “Selfless,” a jangly, sweet serenade of a Strokes song. Things heat up with “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” a synth-led tune that is as modern a classic Strokes song can get, with fantastic riffage courtesy of Hammond Jr. and Valensi, and an ear-catching chorus of “I want new friends / but they don’t want me.” “Bad Decisions” loses the synth, but is even more infectious. The song borrows melodies from Gen X’s “Dancing With Myself” and Modern English’s “Melt With You,” which can be a bit of a distraction, but the end product is absolutely golden; an explosive finale that leads to a twinkling guitar outro. “Eternal Summer” also  borrows a vocal melody, this time from The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You,” but unfortunately, despite the track’s lush sound, it tends to drag on across six minutes. Casablancas’ sudden shouting during the chorus of “I can’t believe it / this is the 11th hour” also doesn’t do it any favors, making for a rather sub-par track. Luckily, it’s the only one.

“At the Door” is the farthest they’ve ever gone from their typical sound. It’s absent of drums and bass, and it’s anchored by a heavy synth sound and very minimal guitar. Its rather bleak, cold tone definitely makes it stick out in the album, but one can’t help but be impressed by such a successful leap in style–considering previous attempts never quite coalesced into greatness. The track cuts the album in half, making for the most powerful “intermission” they’ve done, beating out “Ask Me Anything” and “Call Me Back” by miles. 

Despite the title and its laid-back pacing, “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” just feels so bright, and there’s a great interplay here between the music and vocals. “Not the Same Anymore,” can feel a bit too comically wistful in its tone, but the chorus manages to recapture how The Strokes would sound at their most pleading and emotional in the past.

The album ends on a high note with “Ode to the Mets,” featuring prominent mellotron (presumably by Valensi). It feels like a farewell, but not one that is not sorrowful, nor permanent. It’s one that sounds determined, a vow to return, and not to give in. “Gone now are the old times… The only thing that’s left is us.” A departure from the past, but not from themselves. An ode not to be forgotten.

The New Abnormal shows The Strokes unwilling to recreate their past, but similarly refusing to make a deep-dive into an unfamiliar future, creating a unique middle-ground they’d been struggling to find for so long. It’s a feat that seems both hard-earned and effortless, possibly their first with such a feeling since Room on Fire. It may not hit as hard as Is This It, but The New Abnormal hits a sweet spot, and leaves the doors wide open for another great effort.


David A. Gutierrez | @dagewtz

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