For the past decade, fans of The Strokes have watched the band fading away before their very eyes. Not just through a series of albums produced with decreasing care, but with a bunch of increasingly lacklustre concerts too. They don’t even bother to tour any more, promoting 2011’s ‘Angles’ with a handful of festival shows at which the five members looked like they’d rather be sharing a stage with a corpse.
Yet the fans still hold out hope. The Strokes are the band that kick-started the noughties. Without them, there’d have been no indie revival, no New York scene, no Arctic Monkeys, probably. And sales of Converse would have been waaay slower. The band’s initial impact was so monumental that, each time they release an album, we secretly hope it will be as Earth-shatteringly awesome as ‘Is This It’. But is it really fair to judge a band by an unmatchable past success?
In the build-up to this fifth album’s release, the signs weren’t good. The sleeve – an old RCA reel-to-reel tape box – seems phoned in, not iconic like the ‘Smell The Glove’-inspired artwork of their debut. It transpired that the band would be doing no press, and no tour dates have yet been announced. To top it off, there’s the title: ‘Comedown Machine’. Bummer.
When a track leaked, popular consensus decided it sounded like A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’. ‘One Way Trigger’ has bleepy-bloopy synths, chugging guitars and Julian Casablancas singing like a girl. But this is when things got exciting. For one thing, ‘Take On Me’ is one of the greatest pop songs ever written. For another, it suggested that Julian Casablancas’ latter-day affinity for ’80s synthesizers might finally marry with the guitar-based thrills of six-string powerhouses Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. By way of confirmation, the album opens with a squally guitar riff that gives way to tropical-sounding pop: ‘Tap Out’ is The Strokes via Phoenix, with a monster chorus.
‘All The Time’ follows, with Fab Moretti’s thumping drums and heaps of guitars. Then ‘Welcome To Japan’, with its disco-lite beat, guitars mimicking Casablancas’ vocals and catty lyrics that ask, “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”
‘80s Comedown Machine’ slows the pace, built on a squeezebox loop that could happily soundtrack a Nationwide advert, before ‘50/50’ aptly marks the halfway point with its big riff and fuzzed-up vocals.
And you breathe a sigh of relief, because so far this is good.
Then it gets a bit weird. The second half is Bee Gees time, Julian cracking out the high register for ‘Slow Animals’ and ‘Chances’, which sounds like a Daniel Bedingfield B-side. ‘Call It Fate, Call It Karma’ is like something drifting in from a Bakelite radio on a Hawaiian beach, and ends the album on a curious coda. In the middle there’s ‘Partners In Crime’, possibly the catchiest song The Strokes have ever written, with its journalist-friendly chorus: “I’m on the guestlist”.
And that’s ‘Comedown Machine’. Not an important album, or one that will define the times. People who want another ‘Is This It’ won’t find it. People who want another ‘Room On Fire’ might not even like it. It’s flawed, it’s imperfect and it’s downright odd at points, but it is packed with belting tunes. Most of all, it’s fun – a great achievement considering it hasn’t looked like fun being in The Strokes for years. If this is what the ‘Comedown…’ sounds like, we want some of what they’re coming down from.