While it probably doesn’t feel like it, nearly twenty years ago the Strokes released their first, and most well-known album, Is This It (2001); which soon gained legendary status among both indie and mainstream fans. In a time where rock was as it is today; in need of some stimulus; the Strokes provided a sound that was new and incredibly basic at the same time, with many going as far as to call them the Beatles of the 21st century. And for the most part, the comparison sticks. The old, simplistic guitar chords, the short verses and songs, and Julian Casablancas’ fantastic front-work made them a perfect group to catch the public’s eye. Add a tiny pinch of 90’s angst, and you’re left with a Beatles-esque group, tailored for a large, young-adult audience. Their “new” brand of music created a movement across the country, and the world, toward a garage-style, radio-friendly rock; with groups like the Killers and Arctic Monkeys citing their influence.
But despite being only their first record, Is This It is almost universally seen as their best, by far. I don’t think anyone would say their follow-ups are bad, but from my understanding, they’re either seen as a lot of the same (Room On Fire (2003)), or a bit “too” experimental (Comedown Machine (2013)). I myself, can’t say much about them, as their public opinion has swayed me to steer clear of them altogether. However, while their own records were slight disappointments, the members have managed to create some great music during their seven-year break; most notably, Julian’s band, the Voidz, and their record Virtue (2018); which personally, was one of my favorite albums coming out of 2018. So, although several were skeptical of the Strokes’ new material, I was optimistic, knowing what Julian and his friends were capable of. I wasn’t disappointed.
A larger piece of the album artwork for Is This It.
The New Abnormal (2020) starts off strong with “The Adults Are Talking.” The song uses a very simple, reserved, bass-driven beat along with some quiet, but bright guitar chords, all behind Julian’s very muted, almost-dreary vocals. As a whole, it holds onto the Strokes’ relatively-simple flavor, but does add in several minute details, like a brief transition of echo-filled guitars about two minutes into the track, that remind me of something U2 would use; as well as a Voidz-esque, post-punk guitar melody at around four minutes. The track takes a stance against those powerful in the world; whether that be actual parents, or capitalist elites; effectively rebelling against the decision-makers.
Next, “Selfless,” is a much dreamier ballad, often-using Julian’s falsetto during the chorus; reminding me of certain sections from “Leave It In My Dreams,” by the Voidz. The soft, lovely-layered melodies inside the track are super calming, tranquil, and juxtapose the negativity of the previous track. It’s another solid feature on this record.
“Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus” is incredibly synth-heavy, replicating a lot of 80’s pop’s formulas; which they even play into a little with mentions of “the 80’s bands,” asking “where did they go?”. The hook on this is what really sells me. Julian’s voice gets borderline-grunge to me: a little rougher, and deeper for a lot of the track.
Tracks four and five seem to be where a lot of people think the low of the record is, and while I don’t think it’s an awful section, I agree it’s most likely the weakest point. “Bad Decisions” continues the 80’s theme, using an instrumental I was already going to compare to Billy Idol; so, after finding out they literally put his name on the writing credit, it has an even stronger connection. I don’t have a huge issue with the likeness here, but the chorus doesn’t sell me as much as the other tracks do. “Eternal Summer” takes a more psychedelic approach, but in a really weird, uninteresting way. It sounds like the Strokes tried to write a Tame Impala song, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with Tame Impala, it doesn’t sound natural. Add on a weird, very scream-like vocal performance from Julian, and the transitional sections sound like something out of The Wall (1979). Once again, there’s nothing wrong with the Wall or Pink Floyd, but these sound like impressions rather than actual material.
Luckily the record bounces back, with “At The Door,” probably the most empty-sounding Strokes song I’ve ever heard. A solid 80% of the instrumental is just a repetitive sequence of synth chords, however, its very vulnerable songwriting and lyricism both lend well to this. The chorus: “Struck me like a chord / I’m an ugly boy / Holdin’ out the night / Lonely after light / You begged me not to go / Sinkin’ like a stone / Use me like an oar / And get yourself to shore” is very touching, and gets highlighted with the really loose, electronic backing. It comes together into one of most touching tracks the Strokes have produced.
Once again, the reflective themes carry over into the next song during “Why Are Sundays So Depressing,” which looks back at Julian’s past life, including things like lost love. With this one, it’s not too negative. Lines like “My baby’s gone, but I don’t miss her” show his acceptance of the past and the future. The verse’s bright and twangy guitars are incredibly similar to sections from Is This It, but the chorus brings a very interesting, distorted “wah wah” guitar to the background. And there’s even a very brief guitar solo/break as well.
“Not The Same Anymore” takes that nostalgia, and twists it into a more negative creation. It’s a more regretful look at past actions; openly admitting “I was afraid, I fucked up.” The instrumental sounds like a very slow dream-pop track for most of its duration, but occasionally takes a break to gain some more driving, glossy guitars.
Finally, we get to the concluding song, “Ode To The Mets,” which has, without a doubt, one of most complex and intriguing introductions. After a weird, deep, almost rave-type of synth passage, a very somber guitar section takes over, and ushers in its own, more-depressing synths to back itself. These synths then take over for a majority of the track, following along Julian’s vocals. The outro gets a bit fuller, with louder and louder guitars coming in, before one long, final chord fades itself out.
The Strokes’ album art for The New Abnormal.
Despite my lack of knowledge when it comes to the Strokes’ overall discography, this new record certainly takes over a lot of their old moods. While they apply the feelings to very different points in life, both Is This It and The New Abnormal bring a sense of melancholy confusion. The first, brings it into the context of a young adult, figuring life out, whereas now, it’s more about looking back, and reflecting on how you lived those years of your life. But I would say this record is a bit more forward with the messages and feelings, with fewer short, up-beat tracks, and way more wallowing, drawn-out ones. After all, it does feature two less tracks, while being ten minutes longer. Along with the lengthier tracks, comes lengthier and more clever songwriting; with small, fourth-wall-breaking moments like “Can we switch to the chorus right now?” that remind me of blurbs from Will Toledo.
The sonic quality does something similar as well. While its muddled nature is very reminiscent of the garage-like quality of Is This It and their humble beginnings, they certainly use a larger variety of instruments and sounds throughout the project. I could see hints of the Voidz’ Julian in tracks like “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus.” The project as a whole, maintains a foot in the indie rock pool, while simultaneously diving into a more synthetic, almost post-punk approach. It feels like a perfect middle-ground between the Voidz and the Strokes.
But while it takes some of the best defining features from both bands/sounds, I don’t think it’s quite as strong as their best releases. This Is It will always be as staple of 2000’s music, and for good reason. It approached rock with such a charming, almost amateur view, that was just polished enough to sound fantastic. And it’ll always be impossible to recreate that initial naivete. With that said, this release lacks the complexity, the flexibility, and the dynamic nature of the Voidz’ Virtue. Virtue features some of the most interesting, unique rock and roll tracks I’ve heard over the past five years; and even in its most sophisticated moments, The New Abnormal never strays too far from the familiar. I can’t think of a moment on this record where I went “Wow, I’ve never heard anything like this before.”
When analyzing this release as a whole, it’s incredibly solid, without a doubt. However, it fails to replicate the Strokes’ initial genius, while also neglecting to do too much that’s “new.” Instead, it takes the ideas they’ve consistently brought to the table, and tries to make them as different as possible, without being too much so. Its lack of real risk-taking hinders any potential stroke of brilliance, but still manages to bring with it, seven or eight great tracks. And when there are only nine on the record, that’s a pretty great percentage. I’m thinking a 7.5 on this one.
Favorite Track(s): “Selfless,” “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus,” “At The Door”
Least Favorite Track(s): “Eternal Summer”