The Strokes ‘The New Abnormal’ – Review

16 Apr

It’s hard to fathom now, but in 1992 Johnny Cash was washed up. Past it. Ignored by the Nashville community, dismissed by critics, and forgotten by the wider public; he was feuding with his record label and recovering from numerous surgeries and addictions. Then he met Rick Rubin, backstage at one of his concerts. The rest, as they say, is history. Rubin recorded Cash with two mics, a guitar and an emphasis on his truth. Their ‘American Recordings’ set a precedent. Over the next couple of decades, Rubin would take established but beleaguered superstars and whittle down their sound to the raw essentials whilst amplifying everything that made them superstars In the first place. In the time since, he has performed this same trick on everyone from Neil Diamond to Metallica. It was only a matter of time before he turned his attention to The Strokes.

The successful results are not that surprising. ‘The New Abnormal’ is easily the band’s most focused and cohesive record since ‘First Impressions of Earth’, their messy but generally majestic third album. Rubin’s bright mix emphasises the core essentials; elastic bass lines, interlocking guitar hooks and colour crayoned melodies, while smoothing out the band’s zanier tendencies. On a technical level, It has an identity – something The Strokes have been haphazardly scrambling around for since since the muted reception to 2003’s (now clearly acknowledged) masterpiece ‘Room on Fire’.

The two albums that the band put out in the last decade had the whiff of low risk, low reward. ‘Angles’, a bouncy update of the band’s signature pop-rock sound, was the better of the two. It contained a handful of genuinely great throwbacks alongside some more adventurous curios. As good as it was, it sounded like the fragmented product of five individuals playing different songs on different continents. And there was some truth to that. Even more so, ‘Comedown Machine’ sounded laboured and lacking in focus. It half heartedly cast an eye down several new roads but seemed too lazy to set down them with any enthusiasm or urgency. They didn’t particularly promote either album, save for a smattering of festivals here and there, along with some bad-tempered press interviews that focused more on drug habits, fall outs and family dramas. It gave the impression of a band past the point of caring.

‘The New Abnormal’ then is initially notable for how much the band seem to care. They’ve spent the best part of three months promoting and performing. Press interviews are still a little awkward (in the LA Times this week, Casablancas generously labelled this his fourth favourite project that he’s been involved in) but at least they’re giving them a go. On the album itself are strong signs that they are once more a group of brothers on the same page. The band recorded together in the same studio. The songs are credited to all band members, rather than the individual writer. The gaps between those songs are filled with studio banter, laughs and musical asides. In an affected kind of way, it goes some distance to recapturing the spontaneous, casual cool of a band so desirable that even Alex Turner, one of the coolest men alive, ‘just wanted to be one of the strokes…’

Of course, they are never going to be that band again. No-one is. The disheveled hair has flecks of grey. The vintage t-shirts no longer fit. The disintegrating converse have finally kicked it. ‘Is This It’ was a once in a lifetime masterpiece. To spend any longer asking – was that it? – would do everyone a disservice.

And so I’ll try to focus on the things they do now that they couldn’t have done then. Julian has finally found his range on the wonky, weird synth numbers like ‘At the Door’ and he no longer sounds out of his depth when using his falsetto. Reviewing ‘Comedown Machine’ I complained that his grizzled voice was ill-suited to the taut, clean synth pop he seemed so taken with. On ‘Selfless’ and ‘Endless Summer’ he proves me wrong. He’s a more curious vocalist, taking melodies in unexpected directions. On ‘The Adults are Talking’ he is surprisingly subtle, giving off a sultry r&b vibe as the band click and pop around him. On ‘Endless Summer’ he skews from angelic choirboy on the verses to demonic garage rocker on the chorus. It’s easily his most adventurous turn as a Stroke, and unlike in the past where his experiments sounded stilted or strange, he is largely successful. In the background his band mates are more restrained, doing what they do, as well as they’ve always done it, but more inwardly.

It doesn’t always work though. Occasionally the songs crunch awkwardly, like car gears getting jammed on a long drive. Tracks meander aimlessly past four, five, six minutes as if the band haven’t quite figured out how to end them. Important structural decisions like this feel botched; Fab is audibly, and half heartedly, invited to join in on ‘Ode to the Mets’. Elsewhere verses splutter in to choruses and choruses jut grind to a halt. Perhaps these faults feel more jarring because of The Strokes being who they are – ‘Is This It’ being one of the tightest, most meticulously constructed albums we have. When ‘Hard to Explain’ stopped on a dime after the first chorus, it felt like essential respite rather than there being a lack of a better transition. When Julian shouted ‘stop’ in New York City Cops, it was an imperative, not a request.

It goes without saying that there is something quite fitting about The Strokes releasing an album called ‘The New Abnormal’ at the time of Covid-19. They have form of course; this quintessential NYC band released ‘Is this It’ the week that the towers fell. The Strokes symbolised the end of one era, as well as the start of something new. They drew so much from the past, from an old Manhattan that was being both destroyed and gentrified literally all around them, and set the tone for a new decade of rebels and artists that followed in their wake. This dissonance between yesterday and tomorrow is encapsulated in their sound – something Julian Casablancas once observed when he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he wanted their songs to have the quality of cassette tapes buried decades before being discovered and played in the future. ‘The New Abnormal’ once again summons that quality. There’s a lot here to get nostalgic about; the metallic guitar tones – reminiscent of Thin Lizzy but EQ’d to the point of sounding like Tron synths. The sluggish downstrokes meshing with Julian’s anguished drawl on the ironically titled ‘Its Not the Same Anymore’. Even the terrible, faux-philosophical lyrics (‘you’d make a better window than the door’). But there is the sense of something risked as well. ‘The New Abnormal’ is adventurous and creative. It’s a reassuring dose of familiarity – with just enough that is new – when so much else is unknown.

7.5/10

SHA-11

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