Rock CD Review: The Messy Brilliance of The Strokes

By Alexander Szeptycki

The Strokes are finally growing up — and their maturity is a sight to behold.

The Strokes occupy a confounding, but rarefied, place in the pantheon of 21st-century rock icons. Their debut, Is This It, was as revolutionary as it was straightforward: a batch of rock songs whose distorted sensibility demanded to be heard and reheard. Still, the band struggled, following up with a string of uninspired releases. The New Abnormal comes six years after what was probably their worst record. Fans were hopeful, but apprehensive. Reunion records fail almost as often as they succeed. Thankfully, lead singer and songwriter Julian Casablancas and company have returned with an incredible record, though not in the way that might have been expected. The Strokes are finally growing up — and their maturity is a sight to behold.

The New Abnormal is possibly the strangest album in the Strokes’ catalogue. The Basquiat cover art hints at the arty chaos underneath the garage rock surface. The Strokes update their earlier sound with a wide array of musical influences, from synth pop to psychedelic rock. There are a few stumbles along the way, but most of these ideas have been absorbed without a hitch. The result is a delight: the Strokes succeed in staying true to their signature sound while deepening and extending it at the same time.

The biggest step forward the Strokes make on The New Abnormal is their songwriting. After several albums where they failed to bring more complexity to their songs, they have finally managed to pull it off. Take the fantastic opener, “The Adults Are Talking.” It starts off simply, with a blistering dance beat supplemented by bright guitars. Casablancas sings urgently about righteous youth and crooked businessmen. But then, slowly, the song snakes through various musical shifts and instrumental interludes. By the time the tune reaches its bridge, Casablancas sounds some expressive high notes as the mix swells with a crescendoing noise. It feels as if we have ended up in a a different song, and the journey is more powerful for it.

This attention to expansion never lets up in a wildly varied batch of tracks. Most of the songs stretch beyond four or five minutes (an anomaly for the Strokes). More importantly, these longer tracks almost never wear out their welcome; constant instrumental changes keep them interesting. Sometimes, such as on “Selfless” or “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” the song will develop through the verse and chorus, only to pause and reset back to the primary melody — it is one among the album’s many clever strategies. Elsewhere, the band will break up the verse-chorus cycle with instrumental interludes, introducing new riffs and ideas that pop up later. “Eternal Summer,” a woozy ballad about blissful ignorance, goes through three or four stylistic transitions, including allusions to New Order and Pink Floyd.

Most impressively, this ambitious evolution doesn’t prevent the Strokes from sounding like the Strokes. Their knotty aesthetic is still there, while Casablancas’s lyrics retain the mix of melancholy and manic energy that made them so compelling in the first place. “At the Door,” the lead single, beautifully dramatizes this trademark contrast. The song starts with a solitary, fuzzy synth line, over which Casablancas sings mournfully about a relationship doomed to fail. This simple melody carries the song to the chorus. As Casablancas sings “Strike me like a chord,” rhythmic guitars join in. It is an effectively self-conscious touch. The song’s transitions focus on solo contributions — one musician leaves and then others join in. The result is a hauntingly bare track with no drums. Yet the fragmented sound compliments the forlorn lyrics. The  tune’s faded and scuzzy foundation feels like traditional Strokes, but the elongation and augmentation creates a delicate, though dejected, journey that shows just how sophisticated the band has become.

Another striking improvement throughout the album is Casablancas’s voice. His semi-conversational tone is back, but more and more often he breaks free into full song. His voice is high-pitched and expressive, almost fragile. On “Selfless,” an early highlight, he launches into a sort of falsetto, singing “Life is too short/but I will live for you.” His voice mirrors the pitch of the guitar riff that follows. Elsewhere, on the epic closer “Ode to the Mets,” Casablancas tightens his voice into an angular, punky snarl that clashes well with the tune’s slow, balladic instrumental. He intones, “It’s the last one now I can promise you that / I’m gonna find out the truth when I get back.” It’s an oral history of the band and New York City, a chronicle that’s both maudlin and triumphant.

The one drawback to the album is that it can feel derivative at times. The Strokes draw on so many inspirations that it sometimes becomes a bit overwhelming. As infectious as “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” is, its principal melodies feel eerily similar to any number of classic synth pop tracks. “Eternal Summer” suffers from a similar fate. Still, these songs are redeemed through their complications and catchiness. The worst offender on The New Abnormal is “Bad Decisions,” an upbeat ode to impulsiveness. The chorus sounds so much like Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” that the singer is given a songwriting credit. The song is the album’s weakest point, never moving  beyond the imitative. Still, these are minor quibbles.

The Strokes have been compelling since they first burst onto the scene, but subtlety was never their strong point. Their failed struggles to move beyond their garage rock roots have been well documented. So to see them break through in an album of such depth and breadth is very satisfying. Most impressively, the band has grown up while managing to stay true to who they were from the beginning. They may dip their hands into myriad musical cookie jars, but their heart and soul remains unchanged.

Alex Szeptycki is a student from Charlottesville, Virginia, currently studying at Stanford University. He is majoring in American Studies, with a focus in Contemporary Art and Media. He is currently finishing up his senior year, before looking to pursue a career in writing or the arts.

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