By Alex Koenig
Reviewing a Strokes album for a new generation of fans requires reminiscence so let me take you on a trip down memory lane: The five leather jacket-sporting suburban street dwellers embodied youth ennui in the early aughts. Their debut Is This It is arguably the Illmatic of indie rock-- a precocious, lightning-in-a-bottle moment that made the Strokes vanguards of their genre and poster boys for sweat-free cool. It also guaranteed that subsequent releases would be harshly scrutinized in comparison. The record was just as much an achievement as it was an albatross, and if its equally inspired follow-up Room on Fire wasn't as well received, it was due to sonic resemblances to their debut and ineffable critical expectations.
From there, the wheels fell off-- or shifted into high gear, depending on your opinion of post-Room on Fire Strokes. Their 2006 record First Impressions of Earth was for better and for worse, a kiss-off to the assumption that their inspirations were relegated to the late-'70s CBGB lineup-- there's the prickly aggression of "Juicebox" and "Vision of Division," but there are also the boorish non sequiturs of "Ask Me Anything" that would make the sentiment of its chorus "I've got nothing to say" appear to be a stark overstatement. If you follow the work of Judd Apatow, consider First Impressions of Earth to be their Funny People: overlong and exasperating, rife with flaws but relentlessly ambitious. It didn't change the game, but it'd be damned if it didn't try.
There was a five-year gap between First Impressions of Earth and their fourth studio album, Angles. But the Strokes stayed busy, albeit separate from one another. Their side projects were better than you remember-- Julian Casablancas shared his adoration for '80s-based electronic compositions in Phrazes for the Young, Fab Moretti helped craft sunshine pop in Little Joy, Albert Hammond Jr. released two solid cosmopolitan rock records, and Nikolai Fraiture's solo effort took on Leonard Cohen-esque folk with ease.
Alas, the recording of Angles was a tumultuous process, with guitarist Nick Valensi referring to the sessions as "awful." The record wasn't perfect by any means, but it certainly wasn't the monstrosity Valensi would lead you to believe. It proved the five-piece weren't out of steam just yet, as its best tracks ("Taken For A Fool" and "Gratisfaction") outshined the clunkers ("You're So Right," "Metabolism").
This leads us to Comedown Machine, which is easily the most low-stakes affair thus far for the Strokes. Remember, these guys aren't going under-- they sold out Madison Square Garden in 2011 and two of their records appeared on Pitchfork's People's List in 2012. Even if they released a project equally egregious as Lou Reed and Metallica's Lulu, their status as New York relics is secure. Fortunately, Comedown Machine doesn't find the Big Apple boys going for broke, but it firmly closes the door on the idea that they'll ever fully return to their old style. Trigger-happy with major chords and boosted by a cheerfully nostalgic video for lead single "All The Time," the melodies of Comedown Machine subvert the LP's title: this is the Strokes' most buoyant release yet.
It's also a not-so-subtle amalgamation of their recent influences, and this works to the album's advantage and detriment. "Welcome To Japan" pulls off Twin Shadow's debonair groove and the palm-muted pop of "Tap Out" finds them channeling Michael Jackson instrumentals with surprising fluidity, but the overzealous "One Way Trigger" strikes me as the product of too many saccharine margaritas during a beach luau with Beirut. Then there's "50/50," which finds Casablancas harshly attempting to reach higher octaves than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O. With the album's low points, there's an overarching sense that since the band gave up copping the sound of their late-'70s punk heroes in favor of cheeky new wave and gleaming synth pop, the Strokes have yet to once again truly master the art of the Swag Dracula: stealing an influence and synthesizing it into a sum greater than its parts.
But sometimes the Strokes get it right all on their own. The stunning closer "Call It Fate, Call It Karma" is a loungy and ethereal experiment that leisurely lilts; the 1940s jazz chords in the chorus don't offer a resolution so much as they perpetually waft in mid-air. The gorgeous ballad "Chances" recalls the slow brooding Phrazes for the Young cut "Glass," and is the best utilization of Casablancas' falsetto. "Happy Ending" hooks you with its funk rhythm but the keyboards-as-guitars trick makes for a unique showcase of harmonics that only Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. can perform. Even though the impassioned vocal crescendos on "All The Time" are marred by the obtuse couplet "You're living a lie, baby you're flying too high," we're relieved to hear that it sounds distinctly Strokes-y.
To naysayers, the Strokes' new sound will appear to be the work of sluggish dilettantes without a firm grasp of where to go next, but I'd like to think of them more as chameleons-- restless changelings with a tireless drive for the creative process. "I shouldn't talk about working hard at writing music; I should create the illusion that I'm lazy and supertalented," Casablancas told G.Q. in 2009. Try though they might, if the Strokes seek to create truly awe-inspiring music again, they'll need to lean less on their influences and abide by this quote from one of Casablancas' heroes, Oscar Wilde: "Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."
Check out all the lyrics and explanations for Comedown Machine on Stereo IQ:
1. The Strokes - Tap Out Lyrics
2. The Strokes - All The Time Lyrics
3. The Strokes - One Way Trigger Lyrics
4. The Strokes - Welcome To Japan Lyrics
5. The Strokes - 80's Comedown Machine Lyrics
6. The Strokes - 50/50 Lyrics
7. The Strokes - Slow Animals Lyrics
8. The Strokes - Partners In Crime Lyrics
9. The Strokes - Chances Lyrics
10. The Strokes - Happy Ending Lyrics
11. The Strokes - Call It Fate, Call It Karma Lyrics