You're never quite sure what to expect from The Strokes these days, are you? After the five-year wait for 'Angles', the New Yorkers have recorded its follow-up with uncharacteristic hustle, seemingly looking to make up for lost time. Then they go and wrong-foot everyone by releasing 'One Way Trigger', the most polarizing comeback song imaginable. So it's with some trepidation that we approach 'Comedown Machine', an album for which we simultaneously harbour high hopes and deep reservations. What can you expect? Well, read on...
Fair warning: broadly speaking, ‘Comedown Machine’ is probably the least-like themselves The Strokes have ever sounded. That’ll be an instant red flag to anyone longing for a return to the aesthetic of the first two albums, but in the name of artistic integrity (read: their frontman’s love of keyboards) they’ve pushed forwards, and ’Tap Out’ is proof that it needn’t be a bad thing. Opening with an incongruous six-second paroxysm of guitar, the track soon settles into a mellower version of the tinkling, coke-bottle rhythm from ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ while Julian (albeit in a higher, reedier voice than usual) still sounds reassuringly like Holden Caulfield putting on the moves, shrugging that “Even though I really like your place/ Somehow, we don’t have to know each other’s name.”
Described by the radio station who broke the news of its existence as having a “classic Strokes sound”, ‘All The Time’ is indeed the album’s big, shiny thrown bone, a song that’ll make you want to dig out those old disintegrated jeans from 2002 and earn yourself six months on the Sex Offenders’ register by wearing them in public again. It’d almost be worth it, too: from the way it collapses into motion with a sudden percussive jolt, to Nick Valensi’s serpentine guitar solo, to the unmistakable ‘Room On Fire’ vibe running throughout, this is rock ’n’ roll as only The Strokes can do it. The best bit, though, is the lyric that seems to poke fun at the band's torturous creative process: “All the time that I need is never quite enough, all the time that I have is all that’s necessary.”
Well it’s certainly... different. Given the toxic response it was met with, we’re going to go ahead and assume that you’ll be relieved to hear ‘One Way Trigger’ isn’t any sort of litmus test for ‘Comedown Machine’. If we’re being honest, though, we still don’t quite get the hate for it: sure, it’s not vintage Strokes and the A-ha keyboard hook is a little discombobulating, but it does eventually grow on you. That said, hearing the man who wrote ‘Barely Legal’ sing about how hard it is to find the right dog for his cosy suburban enclave just serves to remind you that time makes a mockery of us all.
Uh-oh, it looks like someone’s done gone come down with a dose of da funk. Yeah, we know what you’re thinking: this might have been horrible, but it somehow ends up being great fun, with Nikolai Fraiture’s daft, elastic bassline underpinning a Franzian strut into outright disco. Green Day recently tried something similar and got laughed out of town, but The Strokes seem oddly suited to it; the song has enough moving parts to keep every member occupied, while Casablancas - demanding to know “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”- is on richly sardonic form.
From the moment you hear Fab Moretti’s echoey, skipped-heartbeat drums, you know something’s afoot. Sure enough, the mellotron isn’t far behind, doing that phantasmal ’Strawberry Fields’ thing which seems to be the instrument's sole purpose. Then Julian’s bruised murmurations drift into the mix. And it’s all a bit... weird. Which is becoming a bit of a theme, isn’t it? Still, there's something oddly hypnotic about this song; like its protagonist (who 'fesses up that, "It's not the first time I'm watching you passing by..."), it sits in the background almost unnoticed, only revealing itself over time and multiple listens.
At two minutes and forty-five seconds, '50/50' is the album's shortest song, as well as being its loudest and nastiest, built around a coiled garage-rock riff that puts us in mind of the Von Bondies (the first thing to put us in mind of that band since... hmm, we'll back to you on that). It seems likely that this'll become a live favourite, and possibly even a future single: it's got the same sort of ferociousness and intensity that 'Reptilia' was blessed with.
On an album full of 'growers', this is the one song that's a little 'meh'. In fact, the song seems to be a bit 'meh' about itself: halfway through it appears to run out of steam, and after a brief interlude of head-scratching, decides that another chorus will be just the tonic for what ails it. Sadly, it's mistaken. There's a frustrating lack of purpose or urgency here, characterised by Julian's tentative, half-whispered vocals ("You don't have to be so loud/ Everyone can hear you in this whole damn crowd") and the heard-it-all-before quiet-loud dynamic it falls back on.
You know what I love about this song? The fact that when you listen to it through a decent set of headphones, you can zero in on Albert Hammond Jr’s guitar, which just does not stop. Like, ever. The man must have pistons for forearms. Back in the day - when his hairline didn’t preclude the rocking of an afro and he moved like a bobblehead on meth - this is the kind of tune he'd commit braincell genocide to. Anyway, the song itself: it's a bit all over the place on first listen, what with sci-fi guitars pinging left and right and no recognisable chorus to set your bearings by, but - as tends to be the case with 'Comedown Machine' - you eventually begin to make sense of it.
Songwriting duties in the band are apparently spread a little more evenly these days, but it seems significant that the record both ‘Comedown Machine’ and ‘Angles’ most frequently resembles is Casablancas’ 2009 solo effort. That’s not intended as a knock, by the way - we really dug ‘Phrazes For The Young’. Nevertheless, 'Chances' is one of those songs - like 'Games', their almost-but-not-quite venture into chillwave - that's slow-paced, mostly electronic and doesn't really feel like The Strokes. "I waited for you, I waited on you, but now I don't" sings Casablancas in that new falsetto he's so fond of, seeming to echo the sentiments of those who'll have given up on the album by this point.
Another noticably funky cut, with more guitars that sound like keyboards (The Strokes remain masters of that particular trick) and Casablancas' double-tracked vocals (one low, one high) imploring us to "Say no more, just get it all off your chest". If we have a gripe with 'Happy Endings' it's that, at a shade under three minutes, it actually feels a little short: the song seems to cut out just as things are getting going. Still, there are worse gripes to have with songs than wanting a little bit more of them.
Honestly, I'm not quite sure what to call this. Remember the demo for 'You Only Live Once', the one where it was just Julian crooning woozily over an electric piano? Well it starts off somewhere between that and 'Call Me Back', but it's also got an eerie, last-foxtrot-at-the-Overlook-Hotel thing going on, with a plonking bass piano motif, gooey Alvino Rey guitar and a wax-cylinder crackle running throughout. It sounds like it's been beamed in from the 1940s. Which is not something I thought I'd ever say about a Strokes song, but there you go.