To those music lovers for whom the first two Strokes albums were formative in that utterly embarrassing early-adolescent period, the past fifteen years of sounds from the New York band have felt something like a trudge across an endless marshy swamp. Is This It? (2001) and Room on Fire (2003) skillfully comprised the soporific tones of lead singer Julian Casablancas alongside light, unpretentious lyrics and remarkably consistent musicianship. In the process, the band collected a generation of fans.
The Strokes released three more albums before their most recent project: First Impressions of Earth (2006), Angles (2011) and Comedown Machine (2013). Despite several genuine highlights, the group veered just enough away from the usual recipe to sound both tediously similar to their early successes yet with an anaemic style that failed to inspire much beyond a light boogie. The band had gone from doing very little wrong, to doing very little at all. Quite simply, the repetitiveness of the instrumentals and the apparent constraints of Casablancas’ voice appeared to indicate that two albums may have been the ceiling for The Strokes.
The New Abnormal certainly holds more direction than its predecessors and encompasses the band’s most (only?) truly experimental attitude to date. Most obviously, the tracks are far longer than the three and a half minutes of pop that we have grown to expect from a Strokes tune. It is both exciting and disappointing that the first track – The Adults Are Talking – happens to be the best; what initially appears to be a grand return to form, returns and brings with it a slight pang of disappointment. That being said, there are a handful of peaks in the sum of these nine songs which are enough to reignite that wilting youthful spirit.
Though it was a remarkable namedrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that Rick Rubin produced the record, considering his own professional background with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (by whom Casablancas was doubtlessly inspired – listen to Last Nite and American Girl at the same time and you will recognise this). For the most part, the production is typically crisp, with the occasional frayed edge coming from the booming guitars and contorted vocals.
At The Door is one example of stellar arrangement. The track makes full use of Casablancas’ subtle vocals, stripping down to a skeletal backing track to better align with the singer’s tone. The writing too displays more imagination than much of the rest of this record, as in “Use me like an oar, To get yourself to shore.” Compare this with: “I transition in, I’m making your body wait, Like on an aeroplane, Please, baby, take me away, yeah” [from its successor Why Are Sundays So Depressing] and At the Door shines as one of the better tracks on here.
As a whole, however, the album is not a terribly smooth listen. Too often, the group is stuck between diving into their newly discovered synth-pop sound and returning to the old pop-rock ways. There is something there, but The Strokes don’t find it consistently enough. Picture a Dachshund dipping it’s paw into a swimming pool and tentatively deciding whether or not to jump in. Ultimately, the album’s positives do manage to override its numerous weak points. The hooks can be irresistible and a number of the melodies are immensely satisfying. This album is worth appreciating, and a hope is there that the next LP will show a more holistic accomplishment.