The Strokes releasing new music shouldn’t be portrayed as as big of a deal as it typically is. It can’t be said that they aren’t an important band in rock history – given that virtually every indie band that sprang up between 2002 and 2005 riffed on them in one way or another, it would objectively wrong to claim otherwise – but it’s been a long time since they’ve been firing on all cylinders, and everyone knows that. For all the grandstanding that surrounds them, Is This It is still their only great album, and even when bringing that bar down to incorporate up to First Impressions Of Earth, that was still fourteen years ago, and everything that’s succeeding it has fallen between mildly decent and almost wholly shoddy. Honestly, after 2013’s Comedown Machine did nothing for anybody, it’s amazing that The Strokes still have a career that’s not solely buoyed by nostalgia, but that does seem to be the kicker in this whole situation. The Strokes’ peak in the early- to mid-2000s has been retroactively defined as the indie-rock golden age of the 21st Century, and when the consensus is that they were among the ones leading the charge, that can drastically colour any further opinions going forward, despite any evidence that could state otherwise. Thus, when viewed independently of historical context that can and most likely has geed up that anticipation for it, the general trending down of The Strokes’ material puts The New Abnormal at a disadvantage many won’t want to admit. It’s been a fairly lengthy period of time since they released anything (that being an EP in 2016 that was also totally forgettable), and when even the tinting of nostalgia goggles hasn’t been able to redeem their most recent work, it’s not a good sign at all.
Then there’s also the fact that this album is called The New Abnormal, despite nothing about it being even remotely new or abnormal. If anything, it feels like The Strokes are going into this album completely unprepared to bring anything to possibly reinforce their status at the head of the table, so have instead fed themselves through the indie-rock machine to feign whatever relevancy they can without anything to back it up. That’s off the back of songs that really aren’t all that memorable or compelling, and a general air of wanting to be doing literally anything else in the world that permeates them so regularly. And thus, The New Abnormal sees The Strokes become the latest casualty of a hubristic high-standing within indie-rock, with a churned-out slog of an album that wants to rely on reputation alone and yet hasn’t noticed that, when it was tried just one album ago, the results were just as underwhelming then.
It’s not even like anyone expects all that much from The Strokes, and yet the fact they’re unable to deliver even that is, in itself, indicative of a pretty shoddy product. At the most basic level of catchy, slightly punked-up melodies, Bad Decisions is the really the lone standout, and even then it comes from a pretty hefty lift from Billy Idol’s Dancing With Myself. Still, it’s at least rambunctious with a bit of energy to it, which, for the majority of The New Abnormal seems to be too much to ask; the closest anything else comes is the opener The Adults Are Talking with its fiddly guitar plucks against thin, spidery beat, but that too embodies how so much of this album feels so insubstantial. That largely comes from The Strokes’ assimilation onto the modern indie production line, primarily through the heavier introduction of electronics that they clearly have no grasp on how to work. A track like At The Door is already so low-energy it’s basically unconscious, but with the farty synths drooped over it, the pace feels even more sluggish as each layer conceals into an even more amorphous globster of a track. Alongside the stabbing warp effect that slices so regularly through Why Are Sundays So Depressing and the plinking synth at the bottom of Ode To The Mets that’s, for some reason, overlaid with a guitar line that’s a completely different tempo, The Strokes’ experiments rarely ever feel satisfyingly complete, and with a producer like Rick Rubin behind the boards with the experience that he has, it’s hard not to get the impression of this being royally phoned in.
Of course, that’s not the only instance where it feels like that’s the case, as The New Abnormal really goes out of its way at points to seem as though it’s just not interested in doing more. The plodding tempos are one thing, but when they’re coming from indie-rock that’s no-frills to the point of drudgery, it’s hard to see what there is to get enveloped by here. The rare moments when it sounds like a spark of inspiration might have actually hit on Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus and Bad Decisions are consigned to the front half almost exclusively, leaving the meandering pace to become the dominant force that makes this album feel too bottom-heavy for its own good. And then there’s Julian Casablancas, who couldn’t give less of a shit about sounding enthused – or awake – as he groans his way through every song, alternating between sloppy, glazed-over diction and one of the most hideously pitchy falsettos put to record this year. He’s never been a great vocalist at the best of times, but when there’s no punch to mask his shortcomings and he doesn’t even seem bothered to try and do it himself, it’s almost unacceptably amateurish.
It gets to the point where lyrics that are beige in sentiment but not exactly egregious are what saves The New Abnormal from falling even further, but even they’re not immune from criticism. At least that’s only the sense of inflated self-importance that can be pretty common for The Strokes rather than anything new, and for as uninventive as the themes can be overall, they’re a clearer positive at the very least. There’s the jabs at corruption in wider society on The Adults Are Talking and Eternal Summer that are fine, but Casablancas’ reflections on his past failures in love and an inability to cope with them on Selfless, Why Are Sundays So Depressing and Not The Same Anymore chip away at his overall aloofness by a decent amount. None of it’s all that earth-shakingly profound (as much as the band would like to believe it is), but for the often futile search of finding a consistent high point on this album, it’s what comes the close.
Even that’s clutching at straws, though, because The New Abnormal really isn’t much of anything that’s necessary in modern music, let alone indie-rock. As a comeback album, it’s hardly some grand statement; as an album from a well-loved, veteran band, it doesn’t capture any sort of spark or magic that their best material had; and simply as an indie-rock album, it doesn’t add to the conversation in the way that a band with this sort of experience could and should. If anything, it’s a concise doubling-down on how lucky The Strokes have been to last this long, booned by fond memories and brand recognition far more than any ongoing examples of musical quality. The New Abnormal might just be the hardest hit to that particular nail too, a limp, bland with album that never settles into any sort of groove or momentum purely through the band’s own lack of drive. It’s almost guaranteed to be forgotten before the year’s out – and that’s being generous – and it’ll be left as yet another black mark on The Strokes’ record that only seems to accumulating more and more of them.
For fans of: Arctic Monkeys, Frank Ferdinand, The Raconteurs
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The New Abnormal’ by The Strokes is out now on RCA Records.