New York cool, then, turned out to be a phantasm: a seductive promise and at first, an exotic thrill – but one that, when you hit the sidewalk, dissipated like smoke from a Manhattan manhole. You landed hoping to rub shoulders with cheekboned axe-slingers on the subway, meet your man on the corner of Lexington 125, let the city grip you in a Bacchanalian hug of rock’n’roll excess. Instead, you discovered CBGBs was a Hard Rock Café for shit punk bands, you couldn’t dance in bars without feeling the leather glove of the NYPD, and the baton of innovation had been left to the freaks, geeks and outsiders: the likes of deranged folk primitives Animal Collective, literate dance-punks LCD Soundsystem and frocked-up cabaret émigré Antony Hegarty.
In a sense, this is a lot to do with The Strokes. If early glimpses cast them as raffish young princes of the New York renaissance, they’ve done everything possible to avoid that fate. Practitioners of an interview style that bordered on the catatonic, sporting a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that has occasionally extended to the live arena, they greeted adulation like most greet Jehovah’s Witnesses.
True, ‘Room On Fire’ was a ‘difficult’ album done good – perhaps because there’s something strangely appealing about the sound of a band on top of the world, but at their end of their tether. Right now, though, The Strokes need something big, and you can forget those jibes about overprivilege: this is the sort of big that no amount of time at Swiss finishing school can prepare you for. Because fittingly, on ‘First Impressions Of Earth’, The Strokes are on their own.
‘First Impressions…’ was, perhaps wisely, a full nine months in the making compared to the previous record’s rushed two. From the very first line – a glorious, bawled “Some people think they’re always right!” – it’s immediately clear a weight has lifted. Possibly the greatest Strokes song to date, ‘You Only Live Once’ finds Julian Casablancas promising “a thousand ways to please your man”, punctuating each line with an “uh-huh” or “uh-oh” and generally sounding on top of his game. Musically, meanwhile, it’s the perfect reminder of just how far The Strokes are from dirty, warty rock’n’roll: defined by Fab Moretti’s ticking metronome beats and Nick Valensi’s lustrous, shiny guitar chime, it’s the absolute embodiment of this band’s gleaming new-wave heart.
They can do rock’n’roll, of course. The bristly ‘Juicebox’ takes a fair stab, prowling on a tense Cramps bassline. Better still, though, is ‘Heart In A Cage’. The Strokes’ answer to Iggy’s ‘The Passenger’, it’s a weary epic of punk-soul chiseled from concrete and steel that drifts through a washed-out cityscape in search of persons unnamed. Even though ‘First Impressions…’ finds The Strokes embracing occasional lightness of tone, they remain somewhat cantankerous buggers. This could – indeed, occasionally does – seem like the churlishness of the spoilt trust fundee, but what saves them is a wryness of touch. See ‘On The Other Side’, a comic snapshot of a life spent in fame’s goldfish bowl. “I hate them all,” sings Casablancas in a deep, syrupy croon, “I hate myself for hating them”. So Julian has a drink: “I love them all”. And he has another drink: “I hate them more than I did before…”
Oddest of all, though, is ‘Ask Me Anything’. Just graceful, classical string sweeps and a whirlpool of synth – no guitar, no drums – it sees Julian take the microphone for a nonsense confessional: “Harmless children, we named our soldiers after you/Don’t be a coconut, God is tryina’ talk to you/We could drag you down/That’s for other bands to do…”. A curious highlight, and it’s only after this that ‘First Impressions…’ truly shows any sign of flag. ‘Killing Lies’ takes The Strokes’ penchant for repetition, but forgets their talent for skidding, giddy propulsion, while ‘15 Minutes’ veers close to closing-time karaoke, Casablancas delivering the lines, “It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s just that I don’t really know,” like a Shane MacGowan so pissed he’s accidentally spilling a pint of whiskey.
Happily, though, it’s a clue to the fact that The Strokes sound like they’re having fun again: maybe not the debauched kicks of ‘Last Nite’, but an older, wiser kind of fun you only learn once you’ve dragged yourself out from under the meteorite. Still, it remains a challenge to crack their ice-cool exterior, to really feel things as they feel – but does that matter? The Strokes are, and have always been, a band that looks great at arm’s length – and consequently, ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ remains, in the best way, untouchable: the first – indeed, maybe the last – word in New York City cool.