Album: The New Abnormal
Artist: The Strokes
Released: April 10th, 2020
Highlights: The Adults Are Talking, Selfless, Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus, Ode to the Mets
Nonchalance and The Strokes have always walked side by side. Born within the New York rock tradition and, appropriately, borrowing from two of the city’s greatest acts in pairing up The Velvet Underground’s indifferent coolness with Television’s entwining guitars, the band that – as proclaimed by critics – brought the genre to the 21st century has always emitted a considerable air of casualness in relation to the world that surrounds it. And nowhere has that disregard been more evident than in the productivity the group has exhibited since 2005. Following a constant creative streak that saw the release of three albums in half a decade, the five members of The Strokes have – ever since the irregular “First Impressions of Earth” – fallen into a pattern that has them reactivating the band from time to time and frequently tiptoeing around rumors of studio work.
Given the constant activity the individual pieces of The Strokes have had outside of the group, such attitude has certainly not stemmed from lack of interest in music or from the desire to avoid the limelight: it is clear Casablancas, Fraiture, Hammond Jr., Moretti, and Valensi enjoy being engaged in artistic projects. Therefore, when combined with the irregular quality of the pair of records they have published since that initial stretch, “Angles” and “Comedown Machine”, and with the fact the first of the two was put together with members of the band barely meeting physically, it is impossible not to get the feeling that the boys – in their indecipherable nonchalance – either see The Strokes as a gigantic burden or as a relatively unimportant part of their current lives. Consequently, and perhaps unfairly, every new release by The Strokes comes attached to suspicions regarding the energy that was put into the package.
“The New Abnormal”, their sixth full-length studio work and third in almost fifteen years, is therefore absolutely preceded by doubts, especially in the minds of music aficionados that are not part of The Strokes’ most devoted audience, as those will undoubtedly question if the band still cares at this point and if they should feel the same in return. As far as that matter goes, “The New Abnormal” holds no answers at all, and it is improbable a future album by The Strokes – if there are any – will ever bring closure to that riddle. This 2020 release, however, carries a far more noticeable achievement: it conjures the image of a group of musicians that, rather than getting together to fulfill some non-existent obligation, has joined forces because they wanted to. In other words, “The New Abnormal” is the first time since 2005 that The Strokes emerge out of an album feeling like a band.
Due to the nature of Julian Casablancas’ work outside of The Strokes, which boasted echoes of the more synthesized faction of new wave, “Angles” and “Comedown Machine” came off as extensions of the singer’s solo career, as if the rest of the band could not muster the energy to pull the material to a middle-ground that could retain some of the group’s signature. In “The New Abnormal”, that balance is reached, and The Strokes – as such – seem to complete the transition they started nine years ago. Casablancas gets his share of synth-laden ballads and falsettos, but he never veers too far into that terrain because the band is there to anchor most of the tunes to the tight rhythms and angular riffs they became known for.
It is impossible to know whether that nature is the result of a concession made to fans or of a compromise reached between The Strokes themselves, but the bottom line is that there is some awareness of the situation on the part of Julian. In “Bad Decisions”, the first single and the track that is most reminiscent of their indie beginnings on account of its pure rock instrumentation and snaking guitar leads, the singer seems to address an audience that is disappointed with the turns that the music of their idols has taken. It is a tune that could be read as some sort of peace treaty, but selected as the cover letter of the album, it works more like a bridge to the rest of “The New Abnormal”. The Strokes, in that unadulterated state, are nowhere else to be found in the record; they are, as “Bad Decisions” reveals, quite alive, though, even if – as the result of a good and natural musical evolution – they are somewhat different.
The great middle ground struck by The Strokes is nearly omnipresent in “The New Abnormal”. “The Adults Are Talking” opens with a brief electronic beat that, although constant in the whole song, soon gets drowned by the drums of Moretti and the hypnotic guitars of Valensi and Hammond Jr. “Selfless”, whose melody culminates with a beautiful Casablancas falsetto, is a ballad tastefully decorated by electric instruments. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” is guided by synths, but the presence of Fraiture’s bass in the verse and the tune’s rocking chorus serve as reminders that the aura of The Strokes is still there. With a more ethereal body and slower pace, “At the Door” relies almost solely on synthesizers, clicking due to its excellent melody and because its electronic constitution brings an extra flavor to the album. “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” flirts with robotic dance music. And “Not the Same Anymore” reaches its climax with an angular riff that could have been on the slower moments of “Is This It” and “Room on Fire”.
With its general mid-tempo pace and a batch of tunes that take their time to evolve, the songs of “The New Abnormal” have lengths that are a bit unusual for The Strokes, with only two cuts falling slightly below the four-minute mark. Curiously, the best and worst moments on the record are its two most epic tracks: “Ode to the Mets” and “Eternal Summer”. On the positive end, closer “Ode to the Mets” is like a well-deserved victory lap; guided by a catchy and simple synthesizer line, which Julian follows note-by-note vocally, it progressively builds to a rousing outro. On the negative end, there is “Eternal Summer”; co-written with the Butler brothers, of the Psychedelic Furs, it loses itself in multi-phased synthpop and annoying vocal inflections by Julian, which at points seem to emulate the ranting moments of Roger Waters in “The Wall”, bringing memories of the worst pieces of “Comedown Machine” in the process.
Thankfully, with the exception of “Eternal Summer”, which is sadly the longest song on the package, “The New Abnormal” is devoid of missteps, easily earning the title of being The Strokes’ greatest album since 2003’s “Room on Fire”. Seventeen years after that release, the young boys who put that record together are now grown men. As a consequence, it would be wrong to hope the quintet would sound as youthful, meaningful, and full of energy as they did in those days; just like it would be unfair to want the 2020 version of The Strokes to emulate the sound they had in their first two fantastic works. “The New Abnormal”, as such, delivers the best one could expect out of the current incarnation of The Strokes: a solid album where the band succeeds in evolving without abandoning the unique traits that made them great in the first place. Whether they care about being The Strokes or not is irrelevant when the product delivered is so engaging.