The Strokes in 2020: Excluding Impatience and Embracing The New Abnormal
It’s 2020. Could we have asked for a better album title than The New Abnormal to name the mood? In April, The Strokes released their sixth full-length studio recording (called, well. . . ), their first since 2013’s Comedown Machine. At once prickly and dazzling, The New Abnormal sounds to me like a band finally finding their angle of repose after two decades of rocksliding expectations and attending drama.
Imagine how much toxicity we could be spared if we acknowledged that we’re all in process instead of going for the takedown.Drop the needle on The New Abnormal, and the first thing you hear sounds like a drum machine. If the last thing you remember from The Strokes is “Reptilia” from Room On Fire, this might trigger a “what band even is this?” moment. You could be forgiven for losing track of The Strokes. Music critics certainly wrote the band off in the early aughts (though as we’ll see, critics still stuck around to bellyache).
Leading off the record, the lyrics of “The Adults are Talking”—couplets like “They’ve been sayin, ‘You’re sophisticated’; They’re complainin, ‘Overeducated’” and “They will blame us, crucify and shame us; We can’t help it if we are a problem”—scan as a thumb to the nose at those critics. A “Good morning to everyone but the editorial board and readership of Pitchfork” kind of vibe. It’s Babe Ruth calling his shot, but it works only if you actually hit the home run.
Taste is subjective and all, but “The Adults are Talking” hits the ball hard, so to speak. Lyrical cynicism buoyed along on a head-bobbing riff and Julian Casablancas’ daydreaming vocal delivery. At the interlude, guitarists Albert Hammond, Jr. and Nick Valensi deliver a conjoined melody characteristic of the pristine, never over-played guitar heroics they have made their stock in trade. Nikolai Fraiture adds a subliminal bass line, and Fab Moretti drives the whole thing along with crisp, understated drumming (more Ringo Starr than Keith Moon), making the whole song pretty much end-to-end impeccable.
“Selfless” elongates the daydream effervescence while “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus” turns loneliness and possible depression (“I want new friends but they don’t want me”) into an 80s pop party with the self-aware sense of humor to ask where the 80s songs went. There’s a guitar nod to another New York icon, harkening back to “Glory Days,” but The Strokes update the Boss for a generation that wouldn’t go back to high school if you paid them.
And then there’s “Eternal Summer,” perhaps my favorite song on the album. It starts as the perfect blend of mid-tempo rock swagger against synth-pop shimmer. Then the pre-chorus ends, and the chorus hits. The aforementioned shimmer turns out more like a sheen of oil griming a parking lot puddle. Queasy Pink Floyd-esque paranoia that’s part homage, part indictment of the whole 70s zeitgeist. All topped off with a phasing coda that owes a tonal hat tip to artists like Childish Gambino. Over and over on The New Abnormal The Strokes prove they can cram a whole lot into a song without it sounding overstuffed. And there’s still half a record to go!
Before this triumph, though, came the drama.
Everybody’s Singing the Same Song For 10 Years
Thematically, The New Abnormal often wrestles with the tension between art and commodity, authentic and false affection, which for The Strokes has been the ever-present tense as they worked under persistent accusations of not living up to the hype.
Their entire 20s and early 30s played out under the magnifying lens of expectations. After signing a startlingly rich five-record deal with RCA and being told they were about to rescue New York City rock and roll from irrelevance, they were pilloried in the music rags the next ten years for sounding too much like themselves and then not enough like themselves. So The Strokes have often sung back at their critics over the years. The struggle through the first five records helps tell the story of why The New Abnormal is such a triumphant record, and makes a strong case for critical patience.
Selah. Before we dissect toxic criticism and the gracious act of letting people be “in process” for a while, here’s a selected sampling of The Strokes. It’s in two halves with “80’s Comedown Machine” as the fulcrum. Half one captures those early records, and half two by contrast charts how far the band was able to journey from straight-ahead garage rock. Enjoy!
Collectively those first three—Is This It?, Room On Fire, First Impressions of Earth—capture a band perfecting their sound and turning up the volume each time. Is This It? (2001) has the single everyone remembers (“Last Night”) and works in a cigarette-steeped, jaded mood. With Room On Fire , the band have honed their sound to perfection on the road–the arrangements tighter, guitar parts more polished. And for some reason, nobody said, “Wow, guys. You really nailed it. Can’t wait to see what you do next.” Critics kind of collectively said, “Ugh. Why do you sound so much like. . . you?”
Then came 2006’s First Impressions of Earth. When I first queued this one up (in early 2020), I immediately connected with the frustration, confusion, cynicism, and humor. Sonically, the band is firing on all cylinders, and they’re seeing how high the engine can rev. I was not expecting this to be the record everyone hated, but when I looked up the reviews it got pretty dreary. And certainly the long-form magazine profiles of the band written around this time evoke a group of people at a low point in terms of mutual trust. If you believe what you read, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see The Strokes flame out after this album. I imagine thunderous hype followed so quickly by jeers would take a bit of starch out of anyone. But, they came back.
Ten years after “Last Night,” late 2011 brought Angles, which sounds exactly like a band trying to sound like a jukebox on shuffle. Is it Queen? Early Billy Joel singing Steely Dan? Depeche Mode? Did they just sound like The Strokes for a second? You can hear the experiments that work and the stuff that’s still brewing. But it’s kind of exciting to see a band willing to take such huge risks exactly when everyone around them was probably demanding anything but.
Last stop: Comedown Machine (2013). They’ve sifted all the angles on the last outing, and it’s coming back into focus even as it seems The Strokes are fading to black. The 80s influence weighs anchor, and the band is weaving in and out with pristine songcraft. I really love this record. The vaunted likes of Rolling Stone magazine? Oh, they wondered why this even needed to be a Strokes record. The Comedown vibe is a long, cleansing, and likely much-needed exhale. The five-record contract was fulfilled. The Strokes could walk away and be done with critics.
Seven years after all those expectations, being labeled a disappointment with each record, The New Abnormal sounds like a turned page. It holds two things in perfect harmony. On the one hand, the band sounds tight. Efficient. Not a single wasted note. And at the same time, it’s a very loose atmosphere. Little unfinished bits remain. Like on “Ode To the Mets” when Casablancas seems to get lost at the end of a line and mumbles, “Drums please, Fab.” It’s the kind of stuff you circle back to and cut later, but there it remains.
The effect of combining polish with process speaks to a band that has grown into confidence in the music they make (and, seemingly, in the specific enjoyment of making it together) and the confidence shows. The New Abnormal is assured and concise, pulling together a brilliant palette of influences and a career’s worth of embrace and rejection in a record that sounds like a bridge from the past to the future.
The thing is, all of the pieces that coalesced with such brilliance on The New Abnormal were there all along. I don’t think you get “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” or “Eternal Summer” without “Games” and “You’re So Right.” Maybe it was impatience, maybe it was boredom, but the critical response to everything post Is This It? was completely myopic. I’m glad The Strokes stuck it out, and I don’t mind saying that I think they were abused along the way by a press that didn’t really understand their whole trajectory and maybe didn’t care.
The Sky Is Not the Limit
The Strokes’ back catalog is a story of process and pressure. They started young and with perhaps more attitude than musical virtuosity when lightning struck, and they were stuck having to grow up on a tightrope–musically, emotionally, relationally. Surrounded by opinions, the stock-in-trade of critics. Flocking to the bright lights to rank and stack. Pit songs, not even songs, just content, against itself on a scale that only computes “better” or “worse.” Glorying in the takedown. The Strokes were instantly huge, so they made an easy target for plenty of cheap shots.
Healthy critics master the art of engaging each piece on its own merits, letting it be in conversation with a tradition as well as a point along an artist’s unfinished development. They don’t force it to compete in their own private coliseum. They don’t do schadenfreude.
Critical schadenfreude especially irritates me. It’s such a misuse of talent. Holed up with a laptop, fingers lit at the knuckles by the bluish glow as you tap out honed derision. Take-down critique makes me worry about rock critics—pressed by deadlines, with a stack of records needing an official opinion. Is that any way to experience art? Is it fair to publish in the midst of hurried listening? One wonders. Even if people started out writing about music because they loved it, sometimes, you consume what you love until consumption nauseates you, and it gets easier to drum up bile than heart-felt engagement.
I had the benefit of really “discovering” the Strokes late, so I could absorb the whole back catalog at once. Their creative arc glares out at me and culminates in this wonderful new record. Ideas spawning, incubating, refining. Records three, four, and five are all incredibly exciting as a music appreciator. What I miss in the Strokes’ story (what I know of the public parts of it, anyway) is patience. When it wasn’t mere backlash, the criticism typically scanned as “Is this what I want from The Strokes?” I can’t help but think that the audience (for the music and the surrounding print alike) could have been spared a lot of toxicity if critics chose to celebrate process over product. Nobody is ever not in the process of growing up. Goodness takes time, so why not live with hopeful ambiguity instead of bitter snap judgement? Nobody’s limitless.
Hope This Goes Over Well
The take-down critique has a particular whiff of the diabolical. It reminds me of Job. A guy just living his life until one morning Satan, sloshing his martini, slurred, “I don’t care for Job.” And set out to take him down a peg. Job did have a long way to fall, this much is true. So much so that when he was in the ashes, all of Job’s friends were quick to assume, “Oh you know he got what was coming to him.”
I probably wouldn’t hang the full laurel of righteous persecution on The Strokes, but I’d absolutely chalk 100% of the toxicity of the surrounding entertainment industrial complex up to the diabolical. Whenever the Strokes got written off, there’s a through line in the language. “Does not meet expectations. The Strokes are over.”
If you’ve ever failed to meet expectations, this line might sound familiar. It happens to be a version of the lie each of us is subject to (and might even tell about people we don’t care for). It is a two-parter: first, what we are now is what we’ll always be, and second, by the way, it sucks. Wrong and hopeless. Play it on repeat, and we never have to engage rounded people again.
We’ve definitely spilled the banks of music. But, in the story of The Strokes, there’s a bit of the story of all of us. The simple truth is that people are mysterious concoctions of good and evil. We’re not all making rock and roll records, but we’re each of us in process. Whether it’s theology, politics, musical taste, parenting style, relationship goals, career ambitions, or any other of a million things that keeps the fire going in the engine room, we’re all on a trajectory that is affected by so many complicating forces that it’s utterly mysterious where we will end up. Life can be long. It’s uncharitable to write each other off to the dustbin of history if we fail that pernicious question, “Is this what I want out of you right now?” Do people need to change? Did The Strokes have some growing to do? Yes. But “not there yet” doesn’t mean “won’t ever get there.” Can you imagine if that kind of hopefulness began to course through, say, politics? Or family reunions?
I believe in Redemption as a hope and a necessity. We each need to be implored—sometimes even rebuked—on behalf of the good, true, and beautiful. Imagine, though, how much toxicity we could be spared if we acknowledged that we’re all in process instead of going for the takedown. I mean, I get it. It does not feel like the time to talk about patience and charity. Each day’s news foregrounds people and rhetoric that give me the howling fantods. But it seems as though all our urgency is spiraling out of control. Giants screaming into each others’ mouths on TV.
We might as well try believing anyone could change for the better at any time and just might be already well on their way. It couldn’t get much worse (and if it does, it probably would have anyway) and the new abnormal could turn out to be way better than we expected.
 Kudos for excellent “Wheel of Fortune”-style Before-and-After wordplay.
 Pitchfork’s review: “NYC’s finest have all but given birth to an identical twin. . . Room on Fire is eleven songs sharing DNA with its predecessor, a follow-up of more sleepy, contagious mono-pop that doesn’t sound diligently recorded so much as yawned out.”
 Pitchfork again: “[T]he band’s failures do, if nothing else, possess a certain schadenfreude, allowing a fascinating glimpse at a band futilely grasping in all directions for something new and meaningful, only to fumble with a half-fragment of unformed idea between its desperate fingers.” It’s that schadenfreude that I really want to pick apart later.
 Not just in the lyrics, but often also in the marketing. In the video for “Under Cover of Darkness,” for instance, Casablancas laments, “Everybody’s singing the same song for 10 years,” as he picks up and throws a mic stand, which is a visual callback to the video for “Last Night,” i.e. the song he wishes everyone could quit asking him to sing. Then, the video for “Bad Decisions” is literally a Ron Popeil ad for a device that can clone a fully-customizable Strokes in your living room. It’s a hilariously, disastrously bad idea. Point being, The Strokes have always been hyper aware of being a consumed product.
 This is the record, from 2006, that brought me back to The Strokes in 2020, a good sixteen years after picking up their first two records in college. The story is I saw The Strokes live back in 2011 when they played the penultimate set in Pearl Jam’s* 20th anniversary festival. Eddie Vedder came out and sang “Juicebox” both nights. Back in the winter of this year, I pulled up a YouTube video of that performance and then went hunting for The Strokes’ original recording, liked it, tried out the rest of the record. Not long after, the 6-disc changer in my car was filled with all 6 Strokes records, so that’s pretty much how I felt about First Impressions of Earth.
* Funnily enough, Pearl Jam released a record in 2020, too. And, funnily enough, like The Strokes, it was their first since 2013. Weird bit of synchrony.
 This is the first record in a long time that I wanted to learn all the words to.
 Like this one in New York Magazine
 The tiresome villains at Pitchfork again, this time using their review of Angles to take one last potshot at First Impressions of Earth.
 Though, I’ll admit that after enough spins of the record as a whole, most of the stuff actually works in the ebb and flow of Angles itself. The band demonstrates a finely-tuned pop sensibility only hinted at before. The record coheres internally, and every song has cool elements to it. The seeds planted here definitely bear fruit.
 The music industry—read the people in suits who work the levers on the cash gates—is notoriously risk-averse. They lay out a five-record deal and see the reviews spiraling downward. They’re apt to start making phone calls and visits to the studio to persuade the band to make some hits. To return to the baseball talk, it’s like when a pitcher gets in a jam. Bases loaded, three balls, no strikes. Conventional wisdom says throw something right over the plate. It takes some brass to throw a knuckleball.
 They didn’t release any singles, do any press, or even tour to support the record. That’s the rock star equivalent of clocking in and sleeping at your desk.
 Casablancas, in fact, did. For a while. He’d done a solo stint, but in 2013 he started a new band called The Voidz, which was far more intentionally weird. Ironically, The Voidz did some pretty electrifying covers of Strokes songs at live shows. And you can hear the lingering Voidz influence pop up on The New Abnormal. Overall, it was probably a healthy departure for Casablancas, but the chemistry is definitely different.
 This 2016 retrospective in GQ sums it all up.
 The Strokes also have a great sense of humor. To write a song, as a New Yorker, about disappointing relationships and call it “An Ode to the Mets,” New York’s perennial also-ran baseball club, is a pretty clever inside joke.
 What makes The Strokes great is the fact that it’s exactly these five people working together to make music. Casablanacs’ lyrics can ping-pong between obscure, even obtuse, and bracingly vulnerable, often in the same song. He doesn’t give much away for free, but when he does, it cuts to the bone. And his phrasing, the rhythmic choices he makes with his vowels and consonants, is consistently striking. Neither Hammond nor Valensi is out there shredding out finger-blurring guitar solos with scarcely any connection to reality (or their own band). They are both impeccably melodic players who intertwine effortlessly in the pocket, which is a good thing because pockets are a particular specialty of Fab and Fraiture. Moretti can show off his chops, but his home base is spacious, crisp playing, and Fraiture can move between rock-solid foundation and carrying the melody exactly when the song needs it. This is the rare band that makes me wish I could play every instrument just like them.
 The Rolling Stone review of First Impressions of Earth in particular had me wondering if the reviewer even listened to the whole thing. They say The Strokes are better at rocking than not rocking and use the song “15 Minutes” as an example of failure to rock. They call it a Pogues-esque waltz. Which it is–for the first two minutes. Then it breaks open and suddenly sounds like a sun that’s been shot. Guess the reviewer got bored and hit skip too soon? Really first-rate criticism, that.
 Critics love to mention that much of the band had wealthy roots, as if only poverty can produce artistic integrity. I say the rich don’t get to choose their birth any more than the poor and the world has plenty of suffering to spare for the rich and the poor alike. Issues of access and opportunity are indeed a thing and worthy of consideration and effort, but a good tune is a good tune no matter what your parents’ tax bracket was.
 See Pitchfork quote in fn 5