Unfortunately for me, I was a little more than fashionably late to The Strokes party. In 2001, I was in the second grade, so it wasn't really possible for me to appreciate or even hear their stellar debut Is This It. I passed over them casually in middle school, where they seemed like an okay band in a time where I was more into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd than anything that was happening in that particular moment. Then, following the release of their third album, they fell of the face of the earth and completely disappeared into a myriad of side projects. So perhaps I could be forgiven for missing them in my initial era of real musical self discovery. Prior to the point of contact, I primarily knew The Strokes as that one band I pretended to know about so I could flirt with the cute girl at school. I fear many people my age have a similar experience with their material; we are just young enough to have completely missed their explosion, yet too old to ignore it altogether.
In a way, I consider the timing of my inevitable convergence with their music a blessing. For the entirety of their career, The Strokes have owed much of their successes and failures to the press, who originally championed them as the saviors of rock music, before quickly turning on them by rabidly portraying them as frauds and plagiarists. In early interviews, it was a little more than easy to sense the discomfort of lead singer Julian Casablancas and guitarist Nick Valensi when they were asked about silly things, such as the style of their clothes. During the Room On Fire era, The Strokes were at their most vulnerable and honest, when it came to expressing their obvious frustration with the pitfalls of media attention and rapid loss of control over their musical statement. For a man who often speaks as ambiguously as humanly possible, Julian Casablancas struck dangerously close to a moment of clarity with this statement: "Basically I feel like when we do something that's good, no one gives a shit, and when we play the game it pays off." In 2002, he seemed to constantly suggest The Strokes were forced into a box they didn't really want to be contained in. Nobody was talking about the music anymore, even though that was the one thing that mattered to them. For Casablancas, there was a real sense that the proverbial sand was slipping through his fingers when he said, "It tears me apart that you can't do it in a really original way and be successful."
That kind of idealism was essential in the early years of their existence, especially considering the climate of the music industry at the time. Keep in mind, these were the years dominated by the Backstreet Boys, N'Sync, and Britney Spears. In more ways than one, The Strokes were the prototype of what would eventually comprise the modern indie rock scene. Sure, the first record was derivative in nature, but it did reintroduce the idea of revitalizing forgotten yet colorful pastiches of cult musical genres and reinventing them for new audiences. While the garage rock revival didn't really last, the impact certainly did, and now the underground music scene is flooded with great bands who have done a pretty similar thing. If you don't believe The Strokes were a large part of making that possible, think again.
Which finally brings me to Comedown Machine, an album that truly feels like a symbolic end to their troubled career from top to bottom. The album art is strangely reminiscent of their debut, except this time their faces are (metaphorically?) blacked out. The album cover features the RCA label trademark imposing over the band name. They have no plans to tour on the album and the music video for lead single "All The Time" doesn't feature any new footage of the band together in one place. Not to mention their original five-album deal with the label has now been fulfilled. The future is uncertain to say the least.
Speaking in a strictly musical sense, the record feels like a much more focused and refined continuation of the ideas they explored on Angles, only this time around, the band sounds much more united in the move to a New-Wave influenced sound. As Mr. Casablancas' taste in music grows ever more eclectic, the stranger the songs get. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, unless what you're looking for is a copy of their previous work. The Strokes do throw this remaining contingency a bone with "All The Time," a track that finds the band trying too hard to sound like they used to. Ironically enough, in those early days, these guys really didn't sound like they were trying at all, and for that reason, "All The Time" is actually the only song on this album that feels completely forced. Given the array of obsolete places they pull from throughout the course of Comedown Machine, that's a pretty mind blowing thought to consider. Luckily in 2013, Prince, The Police, David Bowie, A-Ha, and Phil Collins serve as much more worthwhile influences for The Strokes than The Velvet Underground and Television ever could, and the resulting album contains much more production gloss and glitz than anything they have done in the past.
My only complaint about the album as a whole, is the fact that the band doesn't go pedal to the metal with their expanding horizons. Sometimes it really feels for every two steps they take forward, they're also taking one step back. Fantastic album opener "Tap Out" features a guitar line that could easily make itself comfortable on a Sting solo album along with a helium-fueled chorus that finds Casablancas expressing how much he "really likes your place." For a moment, it feels like things are about to get really, really interesting, but that's before the aforementioned bore of a song "All The Time" kicks in. Strangely enough, The Strokes decide to keep us in familiar territory for a little bit longer, as the jaunty "One Way Trigger" follows as the third entry on the album. From that point forward, The Strokes finally give up on pleasing those who were never going to like this album anyway. "Welcome to Japan" is funky and sexy enough to be the soundtrack to a 70s amateur porno, and its self-conscious sense of humor is oddly suited to Julian's baritone delivery.
When they're not preoccupied with being weird, The Strokes offer some really beautiful outings here. "80s Comedown Machine" is a strikingly surreal dreamscape that finds Casablancas nodding in and out of consciousness as he drawls over the airy instrumental. Ever since his 2009 solo album Phrazes for the Young, Julian has really developed his ability to write tremendously large choruses, and "Slow Animals" demonstrates this talent more than any of the other songs on Comedown Machine. Somehow, it's overwrought and beautiful at the same time.
As the album draws closer to its dramatic close, it delves deeper into musical and lyrical themes of estrangement. Part of what has made Casblancas so intriguing as a lyricist is the ambiguity of his subject matter that is only accentuated by his signature, relaxed delivery. At any given moment, he could be talking about something incredibly profound or absolutely arbitrary within one simultaneous breath. On "Partners In Crime" he insists "You'll need a lawyer/ Let's all be honest/We're in a forest." It's hard to tell whether he's talking about the business side of music, personal relationships, or something else entirely. Much of this lyrical meandering is further suggestive of the fact that this could be the last definitive musical statement from this band.
When I think back to the moment when I first heard the opening chords to "Is This It," I imagine what it must have been like to experience it when it was brand new. For all of those people who have ridden this long tumultuous journey from beginning to end with this band over 12 years, Comedown Machine may not be an altogether satisfying album to punctuate their career. Unfortunately, the intrinsic relationship between the band and the pop culture landscape has always undermined the impact that the Fab Five have had on the music industry. The Strokes represented a radical change that made so many other amazing things possible for us. I really hope that this is not the last time we ever hear from them, but if it is, we probably will not find out if that is the case until the album is officially released. Still, there is no more dramatic way to leave it all behind. As the hangover of the woozy final track slowly burns out, you can either "Call It Fate, Call It Karma," it does not matter. There was nothing they could have done to prevent their tragic destiny. The disruption The Strokes caused will be forever remembered as a penultimate moment in modern music history. Maybe it's high time we stop judging them solely by that first album. Over a decade ago, they rhetorically asked all of us if this was it. I think I'm finally ready to answer yes. The truth is, it was a whole lot more than we all had bargained for.
Comedown Machine is due out March 26th on RCA.