The Strokes Find Themselves Again Within The New Abnormal
A Track By Track Rundown of The New York Band’s Solid Sixth Album Release
20 years ago in Lower East Manhattan; a group of five converse wearing kids changed the landscape of Rock N’ Roll music forever. In Lizzy Goodman‘s rock-ography Meet Me In The Bathroom outlining the metropolis of the musical renaissance that took over early 2000’s New York, they became the star children of the revival’s golden era and represented all that was aspired during the city’s creative bohemian sprawl. “The last imprint of that particular brand of rock cool… the last real rock stars.” A semblance of potentially the last blueprint of everything rockstars have wanted and still want to be.
Quite contradictory for a group of elite boarding school mates; yet the youthful, fast living and full of rebellion kids were upmost and importantly an effortlessly cool package wrapped up in a leather jacket and the smell of burning cigarettes. The winning factor? They never cared if you liked them, and that seemed to make everyone want to love them more. An attitude that carried through most of their years, The Strokeswere the kids everybody wanted to be, even if their propulsion to fame led them to not want to be themselves at times.
Their rapid climb to fame came at the debut of their first album Is This It, a musical shot heard around the world. Or at least from the UK to the US which amassed most of the music industry in the early 2000s. Now decades later, it is still regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. Changing the landscape of indie music from that point forward, and spawning quite the catalog of prolific bands to follow. The world would have missed out on the likes of The Killers, Kings of Leon, The Libertines, Interpol and Arctic Monkeys, who have never shied away from talking about the influence the band had on them, had it not been for that album.
With great power, however, came their greatest downfall. And it wasn’t responsibility, but the imposed expectations from media and fans alike who held onto their sonically groundbreaking first two albums for dear life and have since seemed to have not let go. The following being Room on Fire (2003) and First Impressions of Earth (2006); both with a close affinity to the prior albums but contrasting in their public reception which plays astoundingly into the conundrum that will always follow The Strokes like a casting shadow from the very limelight they walk in. As Albert Hammond Jr. puts it best in an excerpt from Meet Me In The Bathroom,“With Room on Fire, people were giving us shit because they said we were sounding too much the same. With the third album, we were getting shit that we don’t sound like Room on Fire. We got fucked by the same thing twice!”
Following, was an era of intense media scrutiny blended with addiction, internal feuds, personal turmoils and of course the abundance of springing side projects. Suddenly, their renowned words of “alone we stand, together we fall apart” went from lyrics to an embodiment of who they’ve become.
During these inconsistent years, it seemed the magic and friendship that spawned its glorious younger years was long gone. Their occasional regroupings culminated with Angles (2011) and Comedown Machine (2013). Typically ill received, both were daring in new direction and held a space for a few classics to fall into their catalog but still ultimately fell short of their antiquated lustrous spark. Additional factors had potential in affecting their lackluster production, such as intra-band conflicts over musical control between its frontman and the remaining bandmates or the more often rumored affinity for rushing to put out Comedown Machine as a means breaking out of an unfavorable contract, which with its following lack of press circuit or crumb of a tour seems like a highly probable case.
So coming off of a reputation of repeatedly beaten down albums, an almost slipped through the cracks EP Future Present Past, and a multitude of side projects woven in between (Casblancas: Voidz, Hammond: AHJ, Valensi: CRX, Fraiture: Nickel Eye/Summer Moon, Moretti: Little Joy/Machine Gum) it seems that the band, for the first time in seven years, has finally been able to revitalize their rhythm in being a concerted unit once again.
And not just anyone or anything can be the ignition to lighting the fire flickering on its last breaths. This is where acclaimed producer Rick Rubin comes in.
Rick Rubin, famed co-founder of Def Jam and notorious producer known for reviving the careers of legendary acts from LL Cool J, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Beastie Boys and Slayer to name a few, can be credited with being the sixth member during this process. Casablancas seemed to mockingly quote his thoughts of Rick Rubin deciding to take them on as a project “I guess he thought: these guys have fallen far enough.” His bandmates offered a slight varied reaction when asked about working with the producer in which provides the clearest information we have on the recording process. In an interview prior to a recent show in Paris, Albert Hammond Jr. shared:
“Rick’s magic breathed the dynamic that allowed us to recreate the band. He acted as a guardian figure that allowed us to re-form a unit. Deep down inside, we’re still those 18-year-olds who know each other by heart and would be willing to do anything. Love. There was something so special. I don’t know where it is in each of us, but it connects us so much that it almost makes me want to cry… It’s too beautiful.” Drummer Fabrizio Moretti, who was contacted by phone two months later, had the same reaction: “It seems that Rick Rubin’s plan was to ‘unlock’ us. As if he knew there was something in our blood that needed to be awakened.”
Recorded in the early summer of 2017 in the Malibu home of Shangri-La Studios; The Strokes gathered in the studio under the guidance of what reputation has gone on to refer to as a producer who radiates pacification and calmness. Not only serving as a physical location that provided the inspiration for multiple recording sessions that bred the album itself; it also provided as inspiration for the bizarrely timed title of The New Abnormal. Julian shares that their time recording took place around the times of the horrific Los Angeles wildfires that took with it many properties and lives in the process. The New Abnormal came to signify a period of great distress and quite extreme environmental behavior, however Shangri-La, which was physically located amidst the parameters miraculously survived intact and undamaged. Moretti shares a feeling like “the music gods sent out to protect the place” during the time of recording and allowed them to finish and complete the album.
Releasing an album by the name The New Abnormal at a time where the world is experiencing quite some high levels of new abnormals, the project can be seen to be a sort of Shangri-La itself. Tangibly, a musical composition that survived an environment of chaos and great distress, yet somehow still able to come out of it intact, cohesive and probably one of the best projects they have released in their career.
The sixth studio album, released via RCA/Cult Records and their first in seven years, makes a sharp entrance with keen upbeat percussion intro on The Adults Are Talking. Hammond and Valensi quickly find their guitars in a harmonic dance over a percussion and bass driven track. Casablancas‘ voice jumps in with a more relaxed voice than usual. Placating an early line of “We are trying hard to get your attention,” the followed progression does just that; marking it frankly as one of the best tracks on the album right at the beginning. Although not deemed an official single release prior to the album, “The Adults Are Talking” was first debuted at the bands first performance of their proclaimed “global comeback tour” that took place at The Wiltern in Los Angeles, CA early May of 2019. It signaled the first preview of new music and alerted the band still had a some surprises left in them for the future. Additionally, a version of the song was also performed by Casablancas’ with his side project The Voidz early February at a secret show held in Venice, CA creating a slew of mixed emotions. We must say, we’re glad it stayed with The Strokes and landed in the hands of Rick.
Slowing the tempo down to a simmer as it moves into its next track, “Selfless” begins with an atmospheric key driven melody that is highly reminiscent of modern day dream-pop duo Beach House. As it progresses, it dissipates into an oddly similar melody evocative of a stripped down acoustic-like version of their First Impressions standout “Electricityscape.” What isn’t stripped down is Casablancas’ cathartic falsetto that also makes a prominent, and quite pleasant emergence. Also making an appearance is his songwriting tendency that leans towards yearning, and more specifically waiting within its lyricism. Will we ever find out what exactly it is he’s waiting for? 20 years later, I am unsure well ever know. But as long as it keeps producing songs like this, we don’t mind waiting so much ourselves.
Picking up the tempo again is “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus,” which served as the final teaser and third single released prior to the album. With a piercing keyboard introduction and progression into a disco-tinged, new wave track, the single is an instant feel good song. As a songwriter well known for referencing himself in his work, there are many allusions found within the song. From literal references, like more youthful days of racing against sunbeams in “Soma”to now dancing on moonbeams in Brooklyn Bridge; to broader conceptual references like looking back at your past in a longing manner. Brooklyn Bridge serves as the albums modern-age rendition of nostalgic hit “Someday”. While in adolescence they prepare to look back during their transition from teens to fame as they proclaim that “in many ways miss the good ol days;” Brooklyn Bridge now finds them as more matured adults reflecting upon their life’s journey where a newer era of good ol days are now behind him. “I want new friends/But they don’t want me/They’re making plans while I watch TV.” The track follows a contemplative Casablancas as he reminisces on his later in life days that seem devoid of the fruitful days he found his younger self pining for as he tries to grapple with finding his place in the days of present.
“Bad Decisions” enters with a more surface level, pop driven track. It placed as the second single release with its debut at a New Hampshire rally for Senator Bernie Sanders and a surreal infomercial parody-like music video to follow. It fuses a Strokes vibe into Billy Idol’s famed “Dancing With Myself.” (Both Billy Idol and Tony James are credited as writers for the track.) While not particularly the best track on the album due to its attunement for a more pop-ier in nature piece brewed with catchy hooks and rhythmic lines. It is a questionable, yet understandable choice as a single for the album. While quintessentially Strokes in nature, it is not a standout on the album when put up against its counterparts, but worthy of maintaining the cohesive nature of the album. Carrying the discussion of the songwriter linking his various works through his word play, Casablancas did not miss an opportunity to allude to his side project The Voidz by inserting “Always singin’ in my sleep/I will leave it in my dreams.” An appropriate insert on a song which from the video to word play, critiques a disdain for an oversaturation of public input and insistent requests to return to their early sound after straying away from their initial light. “I don’t take advice from fools/Never listenin’ to you,” clearly insinuating they will remain a band to chose to do things on their own accord.
Marking perhaps their most experimental and risk taking directions of their career, “Eternal Summer” is layered in the middle of the album, but tops our list for best song on the album. Leading with a bold afro-beat rhythm a la Africa by Toto, the track merges into an 80s ode to the bands that have long time influenced The Strokes musical stylings. Imprints of The Clash, Pink Floyd and The Psychedelic Furs (in which Richard Butler and Tim Butler have writing credit for its distorted borrowings of “The Ghost In You”) can be found lingering in this sunny, feel good song. Also to be found, the frontman’s rugged high-pitch croons that carries through most of the track until it’s met by his punching Floyd-esque scowling counterpart in the chorus. The risks pile on as dark synths are inserted that can be paralleled to The Voidz stylings and not to mention the song marking the first ever from the band to reach a 6+ minute mark. No risk, no reward; and The Strokes have managed to win big with this one. If we’re going to have what feels like an eternal summer locked in isolation; at least we’ll have this song to hold us through it.
“At The Door” turns both the tempo and the mood down to begin closing out the album. Possibly one of the most melancholic and emotional ballads in the band’s library, it highlights extremely powerful orchestration and lyrics. The lack of percussion makes for a slightly missed auditory absence for a band who so heavily relies on rhythmic beats. Still hauntingly beautiful in melody, the lyrics capture the internal turmoil from a meaningful relationship whose time is burning at its end after repeated attempts to keep it alive. A pleading Casablancas finds himself crooning “You begged me not to go/Sinkin’ like a stone/Use me like an oar/And get yourself to shore” marks a sorrowful and lamenting moment for the singer. By this point in the album, there can be no question of the entanglement between the frontman’s personal life and the heavy thematic lyricism of a love long lost. Recently involved in a not so public, yet known divorce from his long time wife Juliet Joslin, mother to his two children and former assistant manager to The Strokes, the track feels nothing less than hauntingly personal. The song breaches new territory for a band who has so often shied away from becoming overtly personal and emotional within their lyrics.
“Why Are Sunday’s So Depressing” is a question we’ve all asked but have never quite turned into a song. It is taken in as if Lou Reed were to take the early 2000s era indie hits The Strokes inspired, rewrite them for TheVelvet Underground and had The Strokes perform it in 2020. A simplistic, but finely crafted song where Casablancas’ more than often muffled voice is quite clearly brought into view. We just wish he had something a little different to sing about at this point. What saves this track is an enjoyable rhythmic and energetic leaning towards the Rolling Stones that is inherited by the bass and guitar lines. Although, we could have done without the hyper distortion of the guitar during the chorus though. Or maybe we’ll trust Rick with this one and give it a few more spins.
An incredibly haunting and symphonic song, “Not The Same Anymore” provides the beginning of a deep cutting end to the album. The slowed and bared melodic entrance is followed with floating guitar strums and heavy percussion. Casablancas’ vocals and lyrics really nail it for him as he revisits the sweet spot of his songwriting and stylized vocals that were found around the time of his Phrazes For The Young era. With insinuations ranging from abuse and violence, the track is incredibly strong thematically. Finding himself navigating the end of past relationships and self-reflections as the root to many of the tribulations he has faced within interpersonal relationships as a troubled product of his past; it is possibly as vulnerable as we have seen the frontman within his music.
The album rounds out with its ninth and gut wrenching emotional ballad “Ode To The Mets.” Opening with a rather misleading rapid electro rhythm, it quickly shuffles into a melancholic, synth-heavy track. It is shortly met by a mellowed out guitar groove until it meets a peeking bass line in its hook and a steady percussion beat brought in by an endearing “Drums please, Fab” as it drifts into its compelling chorus. Also misleading, the song has nothing to do with the professional baseball team. Debuted on New Years Eve in Brooklyn, Casablancas prefaced the song by informing it is “about when you love someone, you are frozen in time with them.” Taking the meaning a step further, drummer Moretti, stated in a recent zoom call the band released on their YouTube channel, that the song always represented the idea of “something that you set your heart to unconditionally but continues to disappoint you.” The lyrics dance around the closure of ending something rather painful. It seems rather vague in definition, but universal in feeling: “Gone now are the old times/Forgotten, time to hold on the railing/The Rubik’s Cube isn’t solving for us/Old friends, long forgotten/The old ways at the bottom of/The ocean now has swallowed/The only thing that’s left is us/So pardon the silence that you’re hearing/Is turnin’ into a deafening, painful, shameful roar” We can’t ascertain if he is speaking on his personal relationships, the future of the band or quite literally the professional baseball team itself; but while rather vague in definition, it is universal in feeling. This melancholic and hypnotizing futuristic electronica is by far a home run for the band and may lead on one of the best things the band has produced in its career.
Overall, the album encapsulates a high risk, high reward outcome for the band. It is explorative into new territories for the New York musicians. Longer song times allowed them to delve into the depths of their musicianship. The inclusion of side banter and studio recordings provide a sense of harmonic camaraderie that has gone so missing from prior years. The lyricism provides some of the most emotionally raw and vulnerable than has been touched upon within their music, and truly saving much of the albums work. Casablancas experiences one of his strongest performances on a record, with many accolades to Rick Rubin who fought to have his vocals distinctly heard without extracting the grungy mood he has been known for. The instrumentals, while remaining more simple and mellowed than prior albums, have found symphonic compatibility and one of the most united sounds since their early days without having to replicate it. And Rick Rubin, seems to have found his sweet spot too in fine tuning and tightening a signature lo-fi sound to still sound full within a high-def production.
If you’re looking for Is This It’s reincarnate, it’s won’t be found here nor will The Strokes ever be keen in making it for you. Their latest venture may have not revolutionized the music world, but they have revolutionized themselves towards introspection; and maybe this is their declaration that this is their new abnormal. The Strokes are matured, and are here for making music that reflects it. They have broken down some form of emotional wall that has not existed before, and we should all feel so lucky to be let into a different side of the iconic band. They are risk takers. And at the end of the day, what does a band with a legacy status have to lose? They’ve survived iconic albums, they’ve survived poorly received albums; and yet 20 years into their career they are still headlining every major festival across the globe.
You simply cannot get any cooler than The Strokes. The love, the magic and the music are not gone; its just different. And that’s okay. Sometimes, it may take a notorious producer to bring out the magic within you, but it will always be there; always some part of you. On The New Abnormal, The Strokes have re-found their magic and what makes them, them again. There is peaceful solace found within mourning the past and letting go. A kind that only in acceptance can allow a true form of hope for the present to exist and for the future to prosper. A lesson learned from a more than fitting album could not have debuted at a more fitting time. Chaos exists around us, but the magic to create something cosmically harmonic exists within us as well. We just have to be willing to let something, or someone unlock it. For The Strokes it may have been Rick Rubin, who or what may it be for you?