Album A&E is a new series in which NME writers rescue a much-maligned album from critical oblivion. Starting with The Strokes’ third album ‘First Impressions Of Earth’, released in 2006
So after a protracted absence, an abortive album, just the odd festival appearance and advanced online listens splitting opinions there’s finally an album from The Strokes to look forward to…
No we’re not talking about the release of ‘Angles’. That was the scene facing the New Yorkers as they geared up for third album ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ in January 2006.
Plans for a ‘Live In London’ album had been shelved, ‘bit of a departure’ first single ‘Juicebox’ was dragged forward after surfacing on file-sharing sites three months early and with only a handful of shows in South America in 2005, The Strokes seemed oddly reluctant ahead of releasing their third album.
The reviews were mostly poor. Mojo called it “an overgrown squall of a record”, while Village Voice accused the band of “leaving the tunes behind”. And in many ways ‘First Impressions…’ still seems to be overshadowed by the clouds that surrounded its birth.
That the album boasts a darker twist on The Strokes’ blueprint probably hasn’t helped the background mood around the record, but listening again in sunnier times it’s apparent that the darkness has fuelled something strong and enduring.
Departing from the jaunty, men-about-town vibe of the band’s first two efforts, the album swirls with existential uncertainty, fused with a more combative, nighthawk spirit. If ‘Is This It’ was a ‘peak of the party/1am’ record, then this is The Strokes’ ‘3am dark night of the soul/put the world to rights’ album.
Written amongst the emergence of blog culture, Julian Casablancas reboots Richard Hell’s ‘Blank Generation’ lyrically, as despite the contemporary arrival of ‘status updates’, on ‘Red Light’ he recognises “an entire generation with nothing to say”.
Despite protestations he had nothing to say either, with his visions of disappearing in crowds, escaping to fields, sexual politics, modern society and even getting in touch with his inner Shane McGowan on the conscious-busting ’15 Minutes’, ‘First Impressions…’ represents something of a philosophical manifesto for a frontman never comfortable in the spotlights.
Accompanying this progressive thinking (which Casablancas answers in many ways with his solo album ‘Phrazes For The Young’), is some of The Strokes’ most dexterous playing.
The Batman theme-on-speed riff of ‘Juicebox’ pounds relentlessly with an almost sexual abandon, while ‘Heart In A Cage’ has a human warmth that glows out from its shredder guitars (it’s the one Strokes song you could strum for a campfire sing-a-long).
Structured like an old-fashioned A-side/B-side LP, while the first half of the album speeds headfirst into a night, the flipside has a more contemplative feel, thanks to Nick Valensi’s keys on ‘Ask Me Anything’ and the unnerving lullaby of ‘Fear Of Sleep’ before ‘Ize Of The World’ and ‘Red Light’ end the record with a renewed street-fighting swagger.
So while ‘First Impressions…’ might not have the zip of its predecessors, it did something else: it expanded The Strokes’ consciousness.
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Not only that, it made a a dinosaur dance – well the fossilized remains of a diplodocus at the Natural History Museum, whose tail merrily bounced along when the band played a 2006 gig based around the album in the London museum’s grand hall.
And who’s going to tell a 26 metre-long prehistoric monster it’s wrong?
Stream The Strokes, ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ via We7:
Are there any unfairly maligned albums that you think deserve an Album A&E reappraisal? Let us know in the comments