I first became aware of The Strokes in 2001 when they made a big splash in the UK with Is This It and their signature tune Last Nite. The whole alternative rock scene, which was so creative in the period 87-94 seemed to have run out of steam by this time. Britpop, a creative dead end, had already happened, and electronic dance music was predominant.
I don’t know if I was loosing interest or there was no scene to talk of, but The Strokes and The White Stripes, both from the States seemed to create a little revival by the turn of the century. They were the vanguard of a new movement of rock bands, derivative in the main, but with enough about them to be worth listening to, including The Killers and The Fratellis.
I was never into The Strokes in a big way. I’m not sure if I’ve ever listened to any of their previous albums or maybe I have and they never did anything for me. I do however regularly revisit their hits. Although it would be hard to say that The Strokes were original in the way that Pixies or Radiohead (in their later years) have been, they’ve definitely tapped a particular resonance. No-one has stroked The Strokes and you can’t say that the The Strokes sound much like any other band. The harmonisation of their power-riffs with Casablancas nasal lyrics are enchanting, at times euphoric and above all cool. The Strokes produce music that is both feel good and nuanced.
I should also add that I’ve long had a tiny man crush on Julian Casablancas. He is up there for fresh faced looks with Gary Lineker and Roger Black; he seems like a twenty-first century upgrade of Chachi from Happy Days. And I don’t know anyone who carries himself like he does, he is so cool that not only can he afford to slouch, slouching helps accentuate his coolness. Furthermore I heard it mentioned on Russel Brand’s podcast that Casablancas had made some political points, the details of which escape me, but which helped him earn Brownie points in some kind of superficial scoring system of celebrities operating somewhere between my conscious and sub-conscious.
So, with only hits from The Strokes to play with and a fascination with Casablancas I have to say that The New Abnormal is refreshing. There’s the trademark Strokes sounds, tracks being opened up with the hi-hat and a mid-tempo riff pregnant with possibility. But in the main the album is a softer, melancholy and lower energy than I am used to. There is a melancholic thread; Casablancas sounds a bit down on himself; uncertain, reflective. The keyboards trigger feelings of nostalgia. 1972 is referenced. Could this slowing down, this mournful sound be a function of ageing? Are The Strokes entering the autumn of their life as a band? I found it hard to believe that twenty years have near passed since the release of Is This It.
Influences from across decades and genres make for a flavourful mix in The New Abnormal. During beautiful melodic moments, Casablancas reaches for higher notes, like Coldplay. ‘Eternal Summer’ has a funky pop mentality that could have been produced by Calvin Harris. The chorus for second track ‘Selfless’ could have been written for Pink. Singing-cum-chanting on the third track brings to mind The Killers. My wife said this new album sounds a bit like Keen. At first I wasn’t sure she was conflating Keen with indie music, she doesn’t much listen to indie, but she may have a point.
Notably the album lacks ‘hits’, the band refrain from unleashing rocket fuelled riffs. The effect is to accentuate the uncertain emotion and the subtle flavours of the album.
A trademark of The Strokes is the harmonisation of Casablancas nasal mumblings with riffs that are rocking but grounded. Voice competes with instrumentation, so its hard to understand and care about what is being sung. Casablancas often slurs, as if he’s trying to resolve a relationship in his sleep. So with The Strokes, unless you are a true disciple, its the medium not the message. The Strokes are special because of the subtleties of the wavelength they are communicating on, the resonance. And on this downbeat album, there’s so much to feel. I’ve been struggling with the stale nature of life under ‘lockdown’, but the appropriately named The New Abnormal is a blessed relief, a pool of escapism into which I’ve been delighted to dive.
The Strokes released The New Abnormal on 10th April 2020 worldwide.