Album Review: The Strokes - 'The New Abnormal'
The long awaited latest record from indie-rock giants The Strokes raises the bar from their recent somewhat lacklustre releases, striving to recapture the magic of their iconic debut.
Julian Casablanca and co.’s return for an album of simple pleasures and quality pop-rock songwriting finds them channeling the immaculate aesthetic taste and idiosyncratic reference points of their frontman’s terminally underrated side project The Voidz, producing a twisted, lovely, but most importantly, thoroughly Strokes album. The whole band are on fine form for the duration, with indie rock’s chunkiest rhythm section executing surprisingly varied grooves with needle threading precision and guitar interplay worthy of Television. This is strung together beautifully by consistently tasteful and watertight production, as well as Casablanca’s existentialist lyrics and commanding vocal presence across the entire project.
Casablanca imbues each syllable with the melodrama of an Orbison-styled, 50’s tragic balladeer as he impressively transitions between howls, awed mutters, impassioned crooning and haunting falsetto – all whilst maintaining the Lowest East Side swagger and tragic Rockstar charisma he channeled on The Strokes’ finest early records. Here however, that sound is updated and matured somewhat; although the results might be very occasionally lukewarm, they’re predominantly both immaculately constructed and performed as well as shamelessly raw and addictive, as a good Strokes record should be.
Opener The Adults Are Talking calls back to The Strokes’ early 2000s golden age with its syncopated, laser focused drumming and tight, dazzlingly knotty garage guitar interplay as they move between moods and earworms at a disorienting pace. Over this, Casablanca deploys a cannily subdued vocal delivery for some revolutionary lyrics before allowing it to blossom into a gorgeously plainly spoken chorus and a falsetto bridge that rachets up the drama even further. Elsewhere, a large number of other highlights call-back to the sharp musicianship and well-oiled collaborative jamming that first brought the band to such great heights.
'The whole band are on fine form for the duration, with indie rock’s chunkiest rhythm section executing surprisingly varied grooves with needle threading precision'.
Charmingly vintage new-wave inspired single Bad Decisions repurposes an undeniably fun Billy Idol hook for nostalgic and surprisingly introspective effect, over an instrumental that is essentially an incredibly tight, classic Strokes song with a glossy new-wave paintjob. The effect could be quaint or even a little silly in the hands of lesser musicians, but here the band smash it out of the park and Julian provides an agile and tense vocal performance.
The album’s stranger tracks, which take more direct aesthetic nods to The Voidz, are arguably the most exciting and successful directions here. At The Door's moody, cosmic synth-pop remains just as instantly warm and enveloping as it is paradoxically alien as ever, despite us being able to sit on it as a single since early February. Casablanca inhabits a heavily Sinatra persona for the chorus where he croons in his typically rich but unstable baritone to heavenly effect, elevated further by the achingly beautiful lyrics as Casablanca pleads for an unknown party: ‘use me as an oar/ get yourself to shore’. The lyrics could read on a very surface level as a typical Casablanca screed on a waning relationship, but the wording is so obtuse and deliberately esoteric that it results in a much broader, and ultimately more haunting, sense of loss and existential dread which seems to express deeper fears of disconnection and losing control of your life.
'[Their] sound is updated and matured somewhat; although the results might be very occasionally lukewarm, they’re predominantly both immaculately constructed and performed as well as shamelessly raw and addictive, as a good Strokes record should be'.
Ode To The Mets' wailing mellotron strings and ascending chord progression - which seems familiar yet entirely original – highlights the album’s intriguing use of harmonic similarities and melodic motifs to conjure a sense of tonal cohesion that gives the entire record the feeling of one grainy, haunting, forgotten film. Casablanca’s strikingly sincere vocal line mounts with passion as the song endlessly builds while he expresses his deep fears of inadequacy and falling off.
The Strokes have realistically failed at capturing or even understanding their own magic for much of this decade. This is now widely publicised to be the result of label pressures and inter-band tensions consolidated by creative differences (widely suggested to be driven by Casablanca’s increasingly left-field creative tendencies). From 2011’s uneven Angles to 2013’s stuffy and largely unlistenable Comedown Machine and even 2016’s nondescript, stall out the gate Future Present Past EP, these projects have had flashes of greatness in spite of their variable quality, made all the more frustrating by the magnanimous quality and intrepid experimentalism of Julian’s The Voidz solo outlet.
Finally, we get to hear The Strokes rejuvenated and sounding not only like themselves again, but like a wizened and more reflective but equally hungry iteration of the same scrappy hipster kids we fell in love with on Is This It. The New Abnormal might not be the instant classic their debut was – which of course remains a lofty and totally unfair standard – it is nevertheless a rewarding record able to justify the listening experience on its own merits. It’s not only a great album, but a great Strokes album.