By Reece McCormack
The Strokes’ first album in seven years is a series of surprises.
The first surprise is that The New Abnormal was even made at all. It would have been easy to assume - over twenty years in, deep in the thralls of an extensive dry period, stories of intra-band conflict circling them like flies - The Strokes were done being The Strokes. The band seemed more satisfied by the prospect of indulging their various side projects than that of recording a new album and facing the inevitable criticism that, once again, they had failed to recreate the giddy heights of their 2001 debut.
But how many bands ever succeed in recapturing the lightning in a bottle of their greatest album, especially when that album is as influential and era-defining as Is This It? Yet, with each new record since, the band's namesake was a boulder they had to carry back up the hill. It seemed they had lost interest in pushing. They appeared content to let the rock roll down and disperse under its weight.
So, when lead-singer Julian Casablancas announced The New Abnormal during their 2019 New Year's Eve gig in Brooklyn, brazenly declaring, “2020, here we come… we’ve been unfrozen,” the band sounded welcomely reanimated. It was as though someone had just reattached the jumper cables to Frankenstein's Monster.
The second surprise is the Rick Rubin-helmed album’s first single, “At the Door.” Premiered during a Bernie Saunders rally in February, it is perhaps the most uncharacteristic Strokes song ever. Here, the band exchange their trademark indifference for resolute earnestness. The stark, strangely emotive synth loop that cycles through the tune feels like it is shooting through a space vacuum, slowly drawing more sounds towards its incessant rhythm. The record’s sixth track expands until it explodes into an ethereal euphony, with a chorus that sounds like years of self-conscious emotional repression melting into white heat. When Casablancas belts the lines, “Struck me like a chord / I'm an ugly boy / Use me like an oar / And get yourself to shore,” his impassioned, reaching vocal is genuinely disarming.
But where are the interlocking guitars? The jerky pop-hooks? The metronomic drums? Or any drums for that matter? The guarded, so-cool-I'm-already-over-it vocals? The impression it was recorded at 2 a.m. in a room hazy with cigarette smoke?
The third surprise, then, is that The New Abnormal does indeed sound like a Strokes album. The first track, “The Adults Are Talking,” is an absolute knock-out, perhaps The Strokes' best Strokes song since – dare I say it? – Room on Fire. This opening salvo whips along with casual confidence, marked by whispery vocals and spidery rhythms, until it bursts open in a back-and-forth of guitars and keys over Casablancas' seemingly ad-libbed, “I'll get it right sometime / Oh, maybe not tonight / Oh, maybe not tonight” outro. It's the most effortlessly fun – and undeniably cool – that The Strokes have sounded in positively forever.
This resurgent streak powers through the rest of the record, from the infectious singalong “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” (“I want new friends / But they don't want me”) to guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.’s energetic riffing on the Billy Idol-inspired “Bad Decisions.” The New Abnormal sees the band bat between their trademark cool and their new experiments in emotional availability, between the taut guitars and the neon-tubed synthesizers. Most importantly, it finds the revitalized Strokes performing as a cohesive unit and crafting their best songs in over a decade.
And that’s the biggest surprise.
The Strokes Bandbox includes the album of your choice, plus a 16-page career-spanning Strokes zine!
Reece McCormack is a writer based in Gloucestershire, England. His fiction has recently appeared in recent editions of Carve and New England Review.