Zachary Cole Smith has overcome a multitude of problems to make this intensely powerful album
Album Review: The Strokes - Angles (Rough Trade)
Burdened with so much expectation, it’s hardly surprising that the New Yorkers’ return isn’t the masterpiece we’d hoped for – but wait, it’s still one damn fine album
Take a deep breath and consider how: dubstep emerged as new rave expired; free-market capitalism pretty much collapsed; James Brown and Michael Jackson shuffled off their mortal coils; America elected its first black President; China became the world’s second superpower; Lady Gaga became its third; the Iraq war ended; Kanye West was cool, uncool and then cool again; MySpace went from ubiquitous life-tool to digital ghost realm; Oasis called it a day; The White Stripes followed suit; the Arab world erupted in revolution; rock’n’roll was pronounced dead… and there are still another four days to go until ‘Angles’ hits the shelves.
The Strokes, meanwhile, were busy with what Nick Valensi calls, “Typical rock band bullshit – the clichés that keep a group of people who have something special from wanting to continue it”. Thus far, they’ve been careful not to get into the specifics of that bullshit, but the deconstruction of their fraternal, five-guys-against-the-world mythology has already been so thorough, we don’t really want to know who said what about whose girlfriend, bank balance or solo album. Being in The Strokes, after all, was never supposed to be a psychodrama. So let’s forget for a moment about what we want from them, and talk instead about what we need.
We need ‘Angles’ to be a work of redoubtable brilliance, obviously. It needs to be the album that neither ‘Room On Fire’ nor ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ quite managed to be. We need to be able to finish writing this review, tap out ‘10’ on our keyboard, and bask warmly in the validation of a stubbornly kept faith. But by now, your eyes will have scanned to the end of this piece and you’ll have realised that it hasn’t quite happened.
It was never going to, either: the elementary laws of ‘Chinese Democracy’ physics state that X (years of inertia) + Y (unmanaged expectations) = Z (crushing disappointment). But if ‘Angles’ is a disappointment, it’s one we’re ecstatic about enduring. The trick is perseverance: this is not an album for first listens, but one which reveals itself only after you’ve invested time and patience in it.
Take opener ‘Machu Picchu’, for example. While Julian slyly sings about, “Putting your patience to the test”, your heart will probably be too busy sinking at the sound of the band who wrote ‘Hard To Explain’ pilfering reggae hooks from Australian footnote-dwellers Men At Work for your ears to notice the guitars exploding out of the speakers like shards of glass, let alone the bongos that thrum giddily away on the chorus. ‘Angles’ is full of these little moments, and you might miss a lot of them first time around.
Others, you probably won’t. The curtain-raising riff that announces ‘Under Cover Of Darkness’ positively squeals with delight at its own Strokesiness, while the chiming, electric piano-esque guitars, scuzzy vocals and frenetic drumming sound like old friends reunited at long last. It’s one of perhaps two classically ‘Strokes’ songs on the album, the other being the Valensi-penned ‘Taken For A Fool’, whose effortless, really-has-no-right-being-this-catchy chorus will go over just dandy on the “toxic radio” Julian dolefully frets about on the verse. Along with Casablancas, Valensi has always seemed like the member most eager for the band to pull their collective fingers out, and it’s fitting that his major contribution to the record revels in the simple things The Strokes once did so well.
Elsewhere, however, ‘Angles’ lives up to its name by coming at you from some very obtuse places indeed. The retro-futuristic polish of ‘Two Kinds Of Happiness’sounds like what someone in 1985 might imagine rock music to be in 2011, with its wistful electronic sighs and sleek stadium drums. The digitally manipulated vocals and frantic bee-swarm guitars of ‘You’re So Right’, meanwhile, make for something leaner, nastier and more akin to the sci-fi elements of ‘Phrazes For The Young’. And if it’s not too unforgivably glib of us to say, ‘Games’ – whose stonewashed synths and fuzzy-headed ruminations on “living in an empty world” mark it out as one of the album’s undoubted highlights – may well qualify as The Strokes’ first ever foray into chillwave.
Perhaps because the songwriting process has been opened up to include all five members, this record is generally a bit more tangential than previous efforts, and lacking in a clear sonic through-line.
That’s fine when those tangents lead to interesting places – the twinned Thin Lizzy guitars of ‘Gratisfaction’, for example, which sound as joyous as fruit machines paying out, and by some strange osmosis end up resembling modern-era Belle & Sebastian – but not everything works perfectly. ‘Metabolism’ feels like a retread of ground already covered on ‘FIOE’, right down to lyrics that sighingly concede, “I want to be outrageous/But inside I know I’m played, so played”. And ‘Call Me Back’, a drumless baroque downer which sounds like a lot of disparate ideas nobody quite knew how to synthesize into cohesion, kills a nicely building mid-album momentum dead in its tracks.
So… is that it? Well, yeah, more or less. The unusual, disjointed circumstances ‘Angles’ was made in would seem to confirm that its authors will never be that band again, but there is undeniably life left in The Strokes. When they really want to, they can still make great music. And given the tizzy that everyone got themselves into over ‘Under Cover Of Darkness’, there’s no question that we’re all still desperate for them to do so.
That’s the frustrating thing about The Strokes; we only ever want them to succeed, while they only ever want our expectation off their backs. ‘Angles’ isn’t perfect, but if it marks a new phase of creativity and togetherness for the group, then it could be more of a success than even ‘Is This It’. The ball’s in your court again, guys. Just don’t scuff it around in the weeds for another five years.
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