The Strokes’ first album in 7 years, ‘The New Abnormal,’ is here (review, stream)
As with a lot of bands who have beloved classic material followed by years of divisive material, it's hard to know what exactly people want The Strokes to sound like at this point. The further their music gets from the Is This It/Room On Fire style, the more criticism it gets, but when they do obvious homages to their classic era, they tend to sound bored and uninspired. They're a band where each new album seems to be hailed as the "best since their first two" by a handful of enthusiastic fans and critics upon its release, only to quickly find itself living in the shadows of The Strokes' first two albums, along with all the other music The Strokes released after 2003. At the risk of doing that exact thing again right now, the lead single off The Strokes' new album The New Abnormal, "At The Door," was -- in my humble opinion -- their best song since Room On Fire. With a backdrop fueled by a minimal keyboard pattern and barely any drums, it's instrumentally closer in spirit to the experimental pop tendencies of The Strokes and Julian Casablancas' more recent material than to the "rock revival" The Strokes built their career on, but Julian's baritone vocals on the song are cut directly from the cloth of their classic albums. "At The Door" is nostalgia-inducing but modern and forward-thinking, and like on the best Is This It songs, there's a searching quality to Julian's lyrics that reminds you The Strokes were always deeper than the sort of emotionally detached, too cool for school guys they were typecast as. "At The Door" isn't just good for a latter-day Strokes song; it's one of 2020's best singles and it got me a lot more excited for The New Abnormal than I'd been for a new Strokes album in a while.
Then came second single "Bad Decisions," which sounds like a cut and paste job of "Dancing With Myself," "I Melt With You," and "New Order-type guitars" that could've come from The Strokes of 2001, only back then they would've been wise enough to leave it in the vault. The Strokes' whole thing has always been being a little retro and therefore a little unoriginal, but they were never this obvious about it. (So obvious, in fact, that Billy Idol and his Generation X bandmate Tony James are credited songwriters on the track... and Modern English really should be too.) There's thankfully nothing else on the album as skippable as "Bad Decisions," but there's nothing as inspired as "At The Door" either. Most of the album is somewhere in the middle -- some songs sound very much like classic Strokes songs, others shake things up a little more -- which is to say it's a pretty good Strokes album. And, nearly two decades removed from Is This It and seven years removed from the lackluster Comedown Machine, a pretty good Strokes album is nothing to take for granted.
In general, they sound livelier and less cynical on this album than they did on Comedown Machine. Maybe it helps that Julian indulged all of his weirdest impulses across two albums by The Voidz in the time since the The Strokes last released an album, because he sounds genuinely happy to be getting back to the basics on some of these songs. Even on opener "The Adults Are Talking," which you'll swear is already a Strokes song from the early 2000s, he and the rest of the band sound refreshed. Better yet are "Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus" and "Why Are Sundays So Depressing," which manage to combine leftover Is This It riffs and melodies with sounds that weren't in the band's repertoire back then (the former with glittery disco-ball synths, the latter with psychedelic sound effects). And in the case of "Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus," The Strokes do what they do best: combat accusations of wearing their influences on their sleeves with a chorus that's too catchy to ignore. When Julian sings "I want new friends, but they don't want me...," he's got the same kind of plainspoken introspection that makes songs like "Someday" so enduring, and the line is now stuck in my head just from typing it out.
The "Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus" hook is one of the more memorable hooks Julian has written in a while, but The New Abnormal's most memorable song is easily "Eternal Summer." Love or hate this one, you could never accuse of it being background music. Half the song is a blatant homage to the Psychedelic Furs' "The Ghost In You" (and the P-Furs' Richard and Tim Butler are both credited as songwriters on this one), but the other half finds The Strokes navigating the "rock goes funk/disco" territory of songs like "Miss You," "Another One Bites the Dust," and "Fame." You can just picture Julian strutting around like Freddie, Bowie, or Jagger while yell-singing this one, and whether or not this is what you wanted or expected from The Strokes, you gotta hand it to them for going outside of their comfort zone.
"Eternal Summer" is The New Abnormal's most memorable song, but the most effective songs are the ones that -- like "At The Door" -- find ways to feel like classic Strokes but also sound new. One of the ways "At The Door" does that is by sounding slower and more somber than The Strokes did in their younger days, and a few others take that approach too: second track "Selfless" and the back-to-back closing songs "Not The Same Anymore" and "Ode To The Mets." Especially on the last two, it's unmistakably The Strokes but they sound tired and weary (in a good way). You can't write songs like "Last Nite" forever, and it makes sense that twenty years and an even more awful president later, The Strokes' music would sound less like a shot in the arm and more like a sigh. And obviously this album was finished before the current pandemic, but it's these more somber songs that really capture the mood of 2020 and sound the best in this moment. There are a few different versions of "what The Strokes sound like now" on The New Abnormal, and whenever they get around to making their next album, I think it'd go over pretty well if they went all in on this one.
The New Abnormal is out now via RCA/Cult. Stream it and watch two videos below.
The Strokes also have this new isolation talk show: