Nearly 20 years after defining a generation of guitar bands with their debut album Is This It, The Strokes are back with a project well worth the seven-year dry spell.
The Strokes are one of many bands that came out of New York City’s early 00’s lower-east-side rock scene, such as Interpol, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that have failed to create an album as cohesive and consistent as their initial records. But it seems sessions in Malibu’s Shangri-La studio with Rick Rubin, founder of Def Jam Recordings, is what The Strokes were missing.
The New Abnormal starts where The Strokes’ last record left off ― 80s revival material, but the sound is more nuanced and thoughtful on this latest release.
Album opener “The Adults Are Talking” begins with a chorus riff that has the earworm quality of “12:51” or “Hard to Explain” while Casablancas moves around notes ascending and descending with his damaged voice. The Billy Idol-indebted “Bad Decisions” may make you think of “Dancing with Myself” when the chorus comes, transporting listeners back to the neo-New Wave tinge of the group’s early work.
The quintet’s power has always been in their conciseness: short, sweet songs that rarely overstay their welcome. But on The New Abnormal, which is just nine songs long, it is not uncommon for a track to run over five minutes. Thankfully, evolutions in the songs never allow staleness to settle.
“At the Door” was the album’s first single and it hinted towards the synth-filled sound that would encapsulate the record. It has a tin-like lead synth line that carries the song before lifting off the ground in its ethereal chorus. Frontman Julian Casablancas croons for the first three minutes before erupting into an auto-tune vocal journey, which calls on his work with Daft Punk and the influence of Kanye West’s “Runaway.” Like many songs on the album, namely “Ode to the Mets,” there comes an instrumental shift that propels the song from the “yeah, its okay” level of their 2010 material to a new height that harkens back to their golden years with a sentimental, tired veneer.
Analogous to the journey their music has taken, the cover art on Strokes’ albums have grown tired and uneventful. The British release of Is This It featured the famous “ass ‘n’ glove” shot, while the American release settled on the blue and yellow big bang map. By the time Comedown Machine arrived, the Strokes’ cover art was merely an RCA advertisement. But the first glimmer of hope that the Strokes may revitalize some of the heat left burning from their heyday came in the form of The New Abnormal‘s cover art; a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting “Birds on Money,” whom the New York City street artist created as a tribute to jazz musician Charlie Parker.
Together the band has traded their sense of urgency for a more nuanced approach to songwriting. With the exception of “Eternal Summer,” each song barely crosses the 100 bpm line. This sense of calm is contrasted in the lyrics, which range from declarations of unrequited love to harsh self-critiques.
During The Strokes’ Barclays Center New Year’s Eve show, which I attended, Casablancas said, “The 2010s, whatever the fuck they’re called, we took ‘em off. And now we’ve been unfrozen and we’re back.” On The New Abnormal, The Strokes manage to conjure the imagery of New York downtown cool from their Mercury Lounge, Juliani-era heyday, except now everyone is grown up, had kids, paid taxes and is nostalgic for what once was. Hopefully, Julian and company can keep the reinvigorated candle burning after this aged return to form.
Essential Songs: “The Adults Are Talking,” “At the Door,” and “Ode to the Mets”
The New Abnormal is out now via Cult Records/RCA. Stream the album below…