The Strokes Are Distracted and Determined on The New Abnormal

Let’s face it: In 2020, nobody is expecting a new Strokes album to compete with the band’s classic, essentially perfect first two albums. When the seminal, ’70s-inspired garage rock group dropped the latter of those albums, 2003’s Room on Fire, some fans and critics complained that it sounded too similar to 2001’s groundbreaking Is This It. Seemingly in direct response to those criticisms, Julian Casablancas and co. have avoided anything resembling musical consistency on every Strokes release since. Though 2013’s Comedown Machine represented a minor return to classic Strokes form after 2006’s uneven First Impressions of Earth and 2011’s haphazard Angles, 2016’s Future Present Past EP suggested that The Strokes won’t ever see those Room-era criticisms as invalid—and maybe, just maybe, these old dogs can’t learn many new tricks.

You’d think these guys might get the idea by now, and sometimes, they have tapped back into their golden era. Angles’ “Taken for a Fool,” Comedown Machine’s “All the Time” and a handful of Impressions songs suggested that our leather-clad early-aughts heroes might still possess a flicker of their initial spark. That magic reappears in flashes on The New Abnormal—the first Strokes release since Future Present Past and their first full-length in seven years—but even if the album’s strong songs are among the liveliest, most effortless music the band has made in over a decade, their bursting energy only modestly offsets the LP’s many sharp lows.

Whenever The New Abnormal hints at a newly rejuvenated, adrenaline-pumping Strokes, another instance of the band’s most unsavory tendencies usually follows. It’s easy, for example, to envision an explosive, reimagined Strokes on the searing, new-wave dance rocker “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” and the Is This It-inspired “Bad Decisions,” two tracks that put the vast majority of the band’s 2010s output to shame. Immediately after this power couple, though, the band wanders through six minutes of overly digitized synths, vocoder-drowned falsetto and deflating dynamic shifts on “Eternal Summer” (which, like four other songs here, overstays its welcome at over five minutes of runtime). Every time The Strokes tap into their old power, they get distracted by a shiny but fruitless new direction.

But not every risk here is a wash. “At the Door” follows in the nearly percussion-less, almost confessional tradition of Impressions’ “Ask Me Anything” and Angles’ “Call Me Back,” but the synthy, computerized upgrade the band gives this style—coupled with an especially affecting vocal performance from Casablancas—imbue this unorthodox, faintly cyborg-like track with a traditionally hair-raising touch. The guitar arpeggios outlining “Selfless” likewise feel uniquely, er, modern-age, and their effect-laden sheen drips as heavily as Casablancas’ earnestness overflows, even if his vocals sometimes unpleasantly grate against the music.

Despite The New Abnormal’s surprises, it tends to resonate most when The Strokes don’t try to be something they’re not. When Casablancas wears his longtime Lou Reed influence on his sleeve too strongly during the second verse of “Why Are Sundays So Depressing,” he takes the whole song, which already suffers from uneventful guitar dueling, down with him. “Ode to the Mets” is even stranger, starting with an arrhythmic abyss that stands directly at odds with The Strokes’ defining musical quality: An unflagging insistence on common time and aggressive sixteenth-note guitar strums. The initial chaos disintegrates into a delicate but prodding arrangement that makes a convincing home for neither Casablancas’ tranquil slurs nor his lackluster sneers.

Though The New Abnormal is as overstuffed with new directions as it is directionless, it’s consistent in one regard: Casablancas’ early lyrical talents are nowhere to be found. On Is This It and Room on Fire, Casablancas simply but vividly detailed, among other stories, younger guys utterly failing to impress older girls, lies and secrets becoming shouting matches and everyone gleefully backstabbing and deceiving. Where those tales were nothing if not relatable, Casablancas’ newest laments instead feel cliché and trite. “You’re not the same anymore / Don’t wanna play that game anymore,” he says without much urgency on the languid, midtempo ballad “Not the Same Anymore,” and the unclever metaphor “You’d make a better window than a door” pairs with misplaced mentions of child prisoners to sap any sense of intrigue. “I don’t have fun / Without your love / Life is too short / But I will live for you,” he promises on “Selfless,” but he sounds more uninspired than unwavering.

“Eternal Summer” is especially crammed with pedestrian sentiments about truth, fantasy, escape and plenty of other overdone lyrical fodder. “I can’t believe it! Life is such a funny journey,” Casablancas exclaims, but nothing about this track’s tale is unexpected. This middlingly crafted assertion, though, does bring to mind just how implausible it sometimes feels that, despite the rocky, chaotic road behind them, The Strokes are here again. Just don’t call it a comeback.

Max Freedman is a Philly-based, New York-born freelance culture writer who you can find whining about music, TV, and queer liberation (sometimes all at once) at Paste, The A.V. Club, FLOOD, Bandcamp Daily, MTV News, and many more places. You can find all his writing at his website, or you can follow him on Twitter, where he loathes tweeting original content and loves retweeting Jaboukie Young-White.