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I just wanted to be one of The Strokes

| Friday, April 17, 2020

Jackie Junco | The Observer

“I just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” Alex Turner sings to introduce his meandering through the “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.”

Alex and I both.

One indie-tinged suburbanite among millions, I worshipped the understated, airtight and incontrovertibly analogue articulations of 2001’s “Is This It” and 2003’s “Room on Fire” as the epitome of cool, manufactured to the precise specifications of a self-aware discontent: nervous breakdowns bundled beneath leather jackets and jet black shades.

I, like many, was drawn to the fragile unity of The Strokes. To me they were never Julian, Nick, Nikolai, Albert and Fab (though I’ve always felt they and I were on a first name basis). They were always The Strokes — five operating (tenuously) as one, the whole emitting distinct, highly consumable, seemingly indestructible signals in the form of pop songs.

I, like many, was drawn to the instability of these signals, the sense that they — however distinct, consumable, indestructible — occupied soundwaves just on the verge of collapse, with only the strength of the songs to hold them together.

It seemed a product of composition.

On “Is This It,” “Room on Fire” and even “First Impressions of Earth,” Julian’s voice and Nick’s guitar lines expressed a cheeky dissatisfaction with the rigid boxes (Fab’s drumming, Nikolai’s bass work, Albert’s rhythm parts) in which they were confined. When Julian and Nick would scrape against the walls of their voluntary prison — when the walls would, without fail, hold firm — a delectable tension followed: evidence of the nervous breakdown raging underneath.

Somewhere along the line though, somewhere between “Angles” and “Comedown” machine, Julian and Nick ceased to be dissatisfied with their confinement. They grew too comfortable operating within the pop structures they had built. The (once sneakily subverted) simplicity that had once been their signature quickly became their mortal sin.

As Alex Turner and his Arctic Monkeys cheerily destroyed every sonic box they constructed, raising new, more interesting alternatives on each of their records, The Strokes refused to reinvent themselves.

Their latest release, “The New Abnormal,” offers a flat and forgettable depiction of the place to which this inability to innovate has led, a place those of us who “just wanted to be one of The Strokes” have long since abandoned.

The Strokes’ stale rendition of their signature sound — the first to appear in seven years — suffers under the weight of its polemical disposition. Julian set out to write an overtly political record, a noble goal given the s—theap that is our current administration and the Democratic Party’s unfortunate decision to remain spineless rather than swing left.

And, lyrically speaking, Mr. Casablanca’s contributions undoubtedly deliver. “They will blame us, crucify and shame us,” he sings on “The Adults are Talking,” before backtracking: “We can’t help it if we are the problem.” He revisits these kinds of tug-and-pull narratives throughout the record, ascribing cyclic (hard-stance to reservation) fluctuations to everything from Sunday evenings in the city to insidious fantasies of an endless summer (i.e. a climate changed world) to the New York Mets (who, admittedly, deserve an ode).

It’s the music that falls short. Whatever ambiguities lie in Julian’s lyrics have few elements of interest with which to mingle. In place of the interlocking guitars, melodic basslines and near-robotic drumming of the early Strokes are a collection of cheaply re-produced ‘80s pop set pieces. “Bad Decisions,” which features perhaps the most effective of these reproductions, only lingers in the ears because it owes Modern English the lion’s share of its royalties.

Though the musical ingredients underlying “The New Abnormal” are certainly different from those collected in the band’s canon-worthy material, the finished products do not amount to reinvention a la Arctic Monkeys. Instead, we get a combination of loosely interpreted ‘80s hits, all of which remind us of something good our parents played for us once but none of which embody an unidentifiably Strokes-ian point of view.

If you want to listen to a seminal 21st century New York indie band execute polemical statements with elegance and nerve, Vampire Weekend’s “Father of the Bride” beckons.

But, if you, like me, still want to be one of The Strokes, don’t fret. Don’t hold “The New Abnormal’s” shortcomings against your idols. Their heart’s in the right place.

Everybody loses themselves occasionally.

Album: “The New Abnormal”

Artist: The Strokes

Label: RCA

Favorite tracks: “Bad Decisions,” “Why Are Sundays So Depressing”

If you like: Modern English, Arctic Monkeys, ‘80s revival shows on Netflix

Shamrocks: 2.75 out of 5

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