Updated: May 3, 2020
For those wanting a recap, it goes like this: The New York five-piece wrote the definitive indie album in 2001’s Is This It, a debut that they could never truly follow.
Some versions of the tale suggest that sophomore Room On Fire should, however, be grouped with Is This It, as a fierce record and the best follow-up they could conceivably have created – in that respect, similar to Arctic Monkey’s Favourite Worst Nightmare.
Regardless of how you perceive Room On Fire, almost everyone agrees that the coolest band in the world then found themselves on a dire downward trajectory, beginning with third album First Impressions Of Earth in 2006. What followed was a tepid return in 2011’s Angles and the strangely under-promoted Comedown Machine in 2013.
The problem is The Strokes narrative is wrong.
Yes, The Strokes have not yet written an album on par with Is This It – and no one expects them to again, in all honesty – but after that, the narrative is fuelled by neglect and laziness, and not on the part of the band.
Room On Fire is in fact unjustified in its quality as a second album, and from the opening syncopated drum groove of first track ‘What Ever Happened?’ all the way through to the witty lyricism of jerking closer ‘I Can’t Win’, it is a record that comes as close to levelling Is This It as is realistically possible.
First Impressions Of Earth, meanwhile, is better than anything the band had written before, including Is This It… for 22 minutes. The album then dips and ultimately drags itself through a bloated latter half to its conclusion. But Angles was a refreshing return after five years away. The band’s fourth record saw them fragmented throughout the recording process, but eventually producing a piece of work that saw them turn off the auto-pilot that they engaged halfway through F.I.O.E.
Comedown Machine is the most overlooked set of songs the group have ever written, in part due to its lack of promotion. Tracks like opener ‘Tap Out’ and the bashful ‘Chances’ stand among the most impressive songs in The Strokes’ back catalogue, and the album on the whole sonically summarises all of the band’s previous work. The Future Present Past EP was inventive and engrossing, and another example of the band being anything but lazy, something of which they are often accused.
All of that brings us to The New Abnormal, the title of which could not be more apt at this time. And after seven years away, the band have built on the focus they seemingly re-established before disappearing.
Metronomic opener ‘The Adults Are Talking’ ticks towards a staple Strokes chorus trick, with Julian Casablancas’ melody following the track’s lead riff. New single ‘Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus’ soon follows and melds a subtly emotional chorus with danceable verses to form one of the most impressive pieces the band have ever constructed.
Second single ‘Bad Decisions’ feels the most familiar with the band’s early work and is followed by the ethereal, entrancing ‘Eternal Summer’, where Julian’s vocals glide over the mix before dropping into something more stern and aggravated. ‘At The Door’, the most subversive lead single a band could possibly release, is captivating in its uniqueness, promising a dance floor drop that never comes.
The album then breezes comfortably to its end, but in a warming way; in these latter songs it is most evident that the band have regained a handle on the writing that drew in a generation 19 years ago. But while the writing resembles that from their earlier work, sonically there is (thankfully) no attempt to recapture that era – ‘Bad Decisions’ apart. And the most exciting moments are those in which the synths stir and evoke Casblancas’ solo work and creations with side project The Voidz, a venture that seems to have effectively re-enabled him.
While The Strokes narrative suggests that the band dropped off drastically after Is This It, the reality is more of an inverted bell curve, with a period of disinterest from the New Yorkers punctuating the bottom, but their recent(ish) releases seeing them climb back towards the initial quality that set them apart.
Though The New Abnormal does not reach the summit of Is This It, it is – like the band’s last few releases – certainly more reminiscent of the halcyon days than the days of disinterest, and quite probably their greatest output since Room On Fire.