Last month, when The Strokes performed at the Roundhouse in London, Julian Casablancas told the rapturous crowd: “I know what people wanna hear, and I hate giving it to them.” Is this flash of self-awareness a sign that The Strokes, now all in their late thirties and early forties, are finally growing up?
It’s been 19 years since their seminal debut ‘Is This It’, and with album number six, ‘The New Abnormal’, they’re still five of the slickest white men in guitar music – but now they’re older and wiser, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “I am having a selfishly good time,” Casablancas admitted at that gig, before double-checking: “But are you also having a good time?”
The answer, applied to ‘The New Abnormal’, is an easy yes, as while the album explores a few new directions, it’s still often fairly recognisable. The best stuff sounds familiar – few people ever have, or ever will, write a better riff than that of ‘Last Nite’ – and the worst, only peppered in small amounts, feels beyond experimental, as if pointedly ignoring what everyone else in indie rock is doing to stay fresh nowadays. Instead Julian and co. often settle into an afterlife of cantankerous synths only belonging to The Strokes.
The resentment towards fan service and meeting expectations is tangible throughout the album, as ‘Room on Fire’-style bangers – the metronomic, guitar-led ‘Bad Decisions’ and ‘Why Are Sundays So Depressing’ – are sandwiched between more jarring offerings.
Take ‘Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus’ and ‘At The Door’. The former is a disco-synth bop with lively vocals and decidedly self-determining lyrics (“I want another day/I want another break/I want another start”). It’s not about what fans crave any more; these words may move you, but were ultimately written for the person who first sang them. The latter, drum-less celestial number, was the record’s first single, announcing a stark change of pace for the band. It now stands as one of the strongest tracks due to its commitment to the new mood, and some of the most contemplative lyrics. “Use me like an oar / And get yourself to shore’, Casablancas sings to someone we will never know.
The Strokes have always kept their feelings at arm’s length, but there are traces of deeper introspection on ‘The New Abnormal’. There’s striking cinematic beauty to ‘Selfless’ and ‘Not The Same Anymore’, with shades of Arctic Monkeys circa ‘Suck It And See’ (perhaps they’re returning the hat-tip Turner paid them with the opening lyrics to ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino‘: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes”).
‘Selfless’ plays like a daydream, opening with a waltzing guitar, and there’s plain but piercing romance in Casablancas’ lyrics. “Please don’t be long/I want you now” he sings over a wailing refrain that confirms The Strokes remain some of the best riff-makers around. Casablancas’ vocals are diamond-sharp on ‘Not The Same Anymore’, as he captures the inevitably of ageing, proving he’s still underestimated as a lyricist. “Now the door slams shut/The child prisoner grows up” comes the haunting confessional.
But Casablancas can’t be kept away from his beloved ‘80s synths for too long. This is more convincing electronica than most of 2013’s ‘Comedown Machine’ offered, but still weaker than the three-for-three hit-making albums ‘Is This It’, ‘Room on Fire’ and ‘First Impressions of Earth’. ‘Eternal Summer’ is as close as this album comes to a misfire. It’s a poppy, seasonal ode with a brain-melting falsetto, a tinny chorus and workmanlike lyrics such as “summer is coming / it’s here to stay”, which would be fine they weren’t delivered quite so earnestly. It bears the messy energy of the guy nobody knows in the crowd at a festival, who caught sunstroke and let his one canned cider go to his head.
The one Strokes album that feels decidedly absent is 2011’s ‘Angles’, which surprisingly triumphed with its psychedelic influences and existential lyrics – one of the few times the Strokes successfully committed to something entirely new.
The tracks that bookend ‘The New Abnormal’ were first teased at live shows over the past year. The opening seconds of ‘The Adults Are Talking’ might scare people off with abrasive electronic drum samples, until Casablancas comes in with a mellow vocal. As it develops, it’s unmistakably top-tier stuff. The analogue beats of ‘Ode to the Mets’ promise to close the album in similar fashion, before the song blooms into a slow-burn ballad, the central riff sounding as if put through a wind machine.
There’s plenty to praise on the record, even though the listener has been certified as a second thought. Like its cover, the Jean-Michel Basquiat artwork ‘Bird On Money’, it’s spiky but quite stunning. This is a cool album, the kind you begrudgingly grow to love, even if it never cared about you. And isn’t that quintessentially The Strokes?
Release date: April 10
Record label: Cult / RCA