Tag Archives: bad decisions

The Strokes – The New Abnormal

19 Apr

We last saw the Strokes with the three-song Future Present Past EP in summer 2016. The rather on-the-nose concept was that each song represented the eponymous phases of the Strokes, from futuristic “Drag Queen” to stylish “OBLIVIUS” to old-school “Threat of Joy”. With their sixth album The New Abnormal, it feels like the Strokes don’t think of themselves in quite so discrete terms – and the result is an inventive, cool and highly-listenable sixth album.

Famously, there is such a thing as “the Strokes sound”. Most songs on their first two records followed a precise formula: Interlocked guitars from Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi precisely sync with Fab Moretti’s machine-like beats and Nikolai Fraiture’s basslines, with Julian Casablancas’ unstructured vocals adding an exactly asynchronous vocal texture. It’s a carefully free-spirited aesthetic – the sonic equivalent of a get-the-bedhead-look hairspray or a tailored leather jacket (both of which were no doubt in their early wardrobes).

On The New Abnormal, there are certainly songs like these, but they’re often layered with more innovative elements that we first saw in Angles (2011) and Comedown Machine (2013). “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” is a traditional Strokes song – Velvet Underground-esque vocals set to crystal-clear beats – but there’s a pulsing, hypnotic underline that adds unusual heft to the humdrum. Album opener “The Adults are Talking” is as Strokes-y as they come, with a crisp riff that instantly pulls you in, but its latter portions involve jagged zingers from Hammond and Valensi, and, improbably, a Chris Martin-style falsetto half-verse from Casablancas.

And it’s not just the Strokes’ own repertoire that seems to have provided inspiration. In the album-free wilderness years from 2013’s Comedown Machine, every one of the Strokes embarked on a solo career – some successful and some not. As the rock-star cliché goes, these side projects were the result of a growing schism between the band members; but on The New Abnormal, these fractured elements have been successfully pulled into the main act.

For example, Casablancas definitely had his Voidz hat on when he wrote the magnificent “At the Door” –the dense, palpable sadness in his voice contrasted only against sludgy synths. The lyrics (“Use me like an oar / get yourself to shore”) are stark and chilling – a bit unusual coming from the erstwhile kings of nonchalance. “Selfless”, a simple, pretty ditty, is cut from a similar cloth as Fab Moretti’s too-shortlived Little Joy project, while “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” is filled with the sort of irrepressible Hammond riffs last seen on his well-received Francis Trouble (2018).

The overall sonic cohesion on the album, despite so many disparate pieces, is due in large part to Rick Rubin. The master producer has produced for a vast and varied list, from Run-DMC to Metallica to Justin Timberlake, and that genre-bending prowess has left its mark on The New Abnormal. For example, dance-pop track “Bad Decisions” is smoothly segued into the moody Childish Gambino-meets-the-Weeknd “Eternal Summer” – not an easy feat. The production on “Ode to the Mets” is startlingly beautiful – a kaleidoscope of quiet fury, nostalgia, wistfulness and everything in between (per the band, it’s an ode to the idea of a perennial failure).

And finally – the name. When the Strokes announced the album on February 10th at a Bernie Sanders rally, the world was unimaginably different. There was a mysterious virus in China, but they seemed to have controlled it; Bernie was leading the race for President in a bid to finally lift America out of modern-day feudalism; and so on. Exactly two months later, on April 10th – the day of their album release: that mysterious virus had taken more than 18,000 lives in America; Bernie had thrown in the towel two days prior; and a global recession now looms on the horizon. The New Abnormal, the Calpurnia of our times, couldn’t have been more perfectly titled.

Honestly, the only thing the Strokes had to do on their sixth record was to sound like the Strokes. Happily, they’ve overdelivered: a congruent Strokes-plus-plus. The New Abnormal is not the best thing they’ve ever done – Casablancas himself rates it his fourth-favorite output – but it’s proven that there’s more to the Strokes.

Best tracks: The Adults are Talking, Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus, Ode to the Mets

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