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Album Review: The Strokes are ‘The New Abnormal’

photograph by Jason McDonald

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After 7 years, indie rock band The Strokes with guitarist Nick Valensi, drummer Fabrizio Moretti, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., bassist Nikolai Fraiture & lead singer Julian Casablancas make their comeback with The New Abnormal on April 10th 2020. Their last album in 2013 The Comedown Machine left much to be desired from the band, given that their debut album Is This It and their second album Room on Fire, are considered to be some of their absolute best work and truly difficult to top. 

The New Abnormal, (produced by Rick Rubin at Shangri-La Studios) sent a surge of excitement back into The Strokes fanbase, because let’s be honest, we’ve been waiting for new content from these guys for a very long time. 

With this album, The Strokes show that they can evolve with the times while simultaneously staying true to themselves; basically proving their versatility and doing it phenomenally. Many artists over the years have been criticized and labeled as “sell-outs” for abandoning their original sound for a more pop-centered persona, but not The Strokes. Their leading man, Casablancas, knows the value of being genuine and refuses to leave behind the act of “saying something” with his craft. And thus, The New Abnormal is a hit in my book, and it should be one in yours.

The album opens with “The Adults are Talking,” a politicalized love song. Casablancas alludes to a double entendre: one interpretation being a statement of the political climate of the world, and the other a dissection of a complicated relationship. Throughout the song, it’s difficult to gauge who Casablancas is talking to, but I doubt the audience minds the complexity (for it’s very Strokes sounding). Verses include the lyrics: “I know you think of me when you think of her” and in the powerful bridge, Casablancas sing-screams “I don’t, I don’t want anything/I know it’s not, it’s not your fault/I don’t want anyone” speaking to the narrator’s own issues with relationships, let that be a relationship of romantic intent or one with distrusting politicians. The Strokes bring it back to strictly politics with lyrics like: “Stockholders/Same shit, a different lie,” and “They will blame us, crucify and shame us/We can’t help it if we are a problem,” taking a rebellious tone with his commentary on society’s “overeducated” class and their seemingly parent-like relationship with liberal-minded thinkers like The Strokes. The title of the song being “The Adults are Talking,” is wonderfully sarcastic. The band members are trying to be funny, sarcastically saying they should be quiet because, clearly, the more educated “adults” of society are talking.

 

The second song is titled “Selfless,” taking a more romantic and longing tone than their opener. This song centers around a relationship the narrator had/has, and how despite their separation, he is emotionally dependent on this woman for happiness. The song follows a woman who isn’t available for his love right now, whether that be that she is dating someone else, or unavailable emotionally. Lyrics like “Please don’t be long, ’cause I want you now/I don’t have love without you around/Life is too short, but I will live for you” shows the codependency the narrator has with this woman, how she is the sole reason that he continues to even live. He relentlessly waits for this woman’s love, saying lyrics: “bite my tongue, I wait my turn/I waited for a century.” I hope it worked out for this guy, but if it didn’t, we got a killer, heart-wrenching song composed with unadulterated yearning that we can all listen and cry to.

Album Cover Art by Jean-Michel Basquiat

“Brooklyn Bridge to the Chorus” gives me The Strokes sound that I need. The bands New York roots shine bright in this one, clearly referencing a nostalgic landmark for them all. Casablancas doesn’t fail to incorporate some heavy ’80s synth-pop that can be recognizable during his solo career with The Voidz. He takes that sound all the way, giving a new twist to their punk rock energy. This song centers around the nuisances of friendship and the act of truly moving forward with life. With the lyrics: “I want new friends, but they don’t want me/They have some fun, but then they just leave/Is it just them? Or maybe all me?/Why my new friends don’t seem to want me,” give listeners a relatable sense of angst and imposter syndrome. Casablancas mentions 80’s bands, questioning where they went, while using very similar chord structure to Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died in Your Arms”), a song and band from the 80’s. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” reminds me of why the Strokes are so important in the revival of punk-rock: they find a way to juxtapose new wave and punk, and they do it exceptionally

Directed by Warren Fu (A Partizan Entertainment Production)

“Bad Decisions” continues on with the punk attitude that makes The Strokes, The Strokes. Sounding like an intro to a coming-of-age movie, “Bad Decisions,” makes me think of smoking cigarettes on the roof of a parking garage with my two weirdo friends, wearing really worn-in Vans and way too much eyeliner. With an acknowledged riff on Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself,”(Idol and Tony James receiving a songwriting credit), The Strokes give a nod to old pop, while incorporating the same gritty sound that can be found in their debut album from 2001. “Bad Decisions” emphasizes the act of listening. Casablancas sings “Oh baby, I hang on everything you say/I wanna write down every word/But do me a favor when you come through/When I look around, don’t wanna see you/I don’t take advice from fools/Never listenin’ to you.” A quick switch from being thoughtful to then rejecting ideas from so-called “fools.” Casablancas transitions from saying that he’s making bad decisions “for you,” or “with you,” and lastly “on you,” throughout the song. There is speculation that the lead singer is speaking on the strained relationship that The Strokes have with their fan base; their struggle to stay true to themselves while also growing away from their old sound. Whatever The Strokes mean to say with this song, there’s no doubt that this song gives old-school, angsty rocker vibes, and our ears needed to hear this.

Directed by Andrew Donoho

Coming up to be the longest song on the album with 6 minutes and 15 seconds, “Eternal Summer” exposes a clear-cut message: global warming is real and humanity is ignoring it and that same ignorance will lead to our downfall. This song definitely sounds like something from the 70s hippie era, specifically the Psychedelic Furs (a band that some sections of this song greatly emulate). The track tiptoes around a psychedelic, breezy sound encapsulating the beauty of summer, and jumping to the dark side of having permanent warm weather: destruction and doom. With the lyrics “Don’t you want the truth?/Ignore reality/See, I love that feeling too/Nobody’s gonna stop right now.” But, living in ignorant bliss doesn’t stop that “Summer is coming, won’t go away/ Summer is coming, is here to stay.” One of the most highly politicized lyrics in the song being “They have the remedy, but they won’t let it happen,” alludes to the government knowing how to end global warming, but not wanting to solve it due to many higher-ups making money off ruining the earth. In a world where those in power don’t care about the world ending, this song gives an eerie sense of contemplating our own purpose in such a society. Feeling like everyone around them is corrupt, the ending verse breaks down that paranoia with “Everybody’s on the take/tell me are you on the take too?” expressing how they feel like everyone around us is taking bribes too. The song comes to a haunting conclusion with an urge to “Look at it on the bright side,”  I would without a doubt scream these lyrics while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway with all the windows down, which ironically is not what the Strokes would want me to do. Driving uses gas, and thus I would be a contributor to the very same Eternal Summer they are singing about.

“At The Door,” feels like it’s missing something, and maybe that’s the point. This song lacks the instrumentals of a typical rock band (no percussion, little guitar, LOT’s of synth), but it’s the emotional ballad that absolutely needed to be on this album. Casablancas vocal intonation carries “At The Door,” and you can truly feel his pain and longing through every lyric. This was the first song that The Strokes released on the album, after 7 whole years of radio silence, and I can understand why. They wanted to come out and say that they are not the same Strokes that they were in 2001. This song proves they changed their sound, whether their fans like it or not. The Strokes touch on various topics in this song: being used, feelings useless, insecurity, hopelessness, longing, and loneliness. It’s a heavy one for sure, but that doesn’t stop it from being a work of art. This song is coming from a pessimistic disposition of Casablancas looking retrospectively with “My thoughts, such a mess/Like a little boy/What you runnin’ for?” All the metaphors in this tune are open to interpretation, and all have deeper meanings that can be impossible to know for certain. Specifically, this song takes ideas and rhythms from a few of their previously released songs (“On the Other Side,” “Games,” “Call it Fate, Call it Karma”) perhaps meaning that they are still The Strokes, but different. To conclude, this haunting ballad shows a different side of The Strokes, a side that I can appreciate. I will definitely be listening to this song while staring at my ceiling contemplating my own existence. 

Directed by Mike Burakoff

“Why Are Sundays So Depressing” is another example of how necessary the use of metaphors are to The Strokes. Since there are no references to any days of the week in the song, it can be interpreted that “Sunday” is a state of mind. With a seemingly sad title, this song is oddly upbeat and catchy, a beautiful juxtaposition. The guitar and percussion are brought back from being missing in the previous track (thank you Fab). The 80’s synth that this album loves so much makes its appearance once more, and I’m honestly not mad about it. The lyrics to this song can very-well be the confessions of a misunderstood jock. This jock is definitely in the act of throwing rocks at the second-floor bedroom of his nerdy girlfriend’s house, all to win her back with his cheesy romantics. The cool-guy lyrics and smooth guitar riffs make this song as charmingly entertaining as it is. This song ends with a funny outro, which seems to be a common theme within this album (there are also humorous ad-libs in “Adults Are Talking,” “Bad Decisions,” and “Ode To The Mets”). Casablancas concludes the song by speaking “The click was always in you Fab,” (“Fab” is referencing Fabrizio Moretti, the band’s drummer) and Moretti answered back with “It was never on.” I’m glad Casablancas and Moretti have fun when they’re performing, it truly leaves a smile at the end of the song. 

“Not The Same Anymore” is an emotional rollercoaster of regret and screwed up relationships, specifically in the life of the band’s leading man, Julian Casablancas. This one has been the most difficult for me to dissect, and it makes me mad. The song is frustrating, it makes me want to scream, and by the end of it, Casablancas is screaming too. This track is heavy on the instrumentals with a very full percussion line, which means lots of drums and lots of anger release. Truthfully, the song does seem like a release of frustration from everything that has gone wrong with the relationships with Casablancas’ bandmates and/or former girlfriends.

It’s no secret that The Strokes have had their struggles being a band in sync during their recording process. Valensi told Pitchfork in 2011 that recording their album “Angles,” was “just awful.” Most days, Valensi would find himself alone in the studio recording his own guitar lines, barely even seeing his bandmates. After that experience, Valensi goes on to say that there’s no way he will record another album with The Strokes if the experience is like that again. Turmoil with The Strokes has always been a complicated issue, with Casablancas’ alcoholism, Hammonds hard-drug addiction and near-death experiences, and loads of uncomfortably awful interviews, the band was going through a lot after their boom of success in the early 2000’s.

In “Not The Same Anymore,” the band acknowledges their wavey past with lyrics like: “I didn’t know, I didn’t care/I don’t even understand/Did somethin’ wrong, I wasn’t sure” touches on the complexity of addiction: how the addict tends to not know or understand that they are doing something wrong, and they may not even mean harm to others. “Uncle’s house, I forget/Violent tendencies I get/…I didn’t know, I wasn’t sure/Can’t remember all that well,” perhaps alludes to Casablancas’ alcoholism that lead to him to have gaps in his memory, or a similar situation with Hammond’s struggle.

This song can be considered a cathartic release from the troubles that used to hold The Strokes back, and it is magnificently frustrating as well as lyrically complicated. It’s a hard one to listen to, I personally have to limit my intake of it because I find myself getting really angry whenever I hear it too often, like drugs. COULD THIS SONG BE LIKE A DRUG???? IT’S REALLY NICE TO LISTEN TO THE FIRST TIME, BUT IF I KEEP LISTENING OVER AND OVER AGAIN I FIND THAT I DON’T FEEL LIKE MYSELF, BUT MORE LIKE AN ANGRIER VERSION OF ME. Wow, well done.

“Ode To The Mets,” is my favorite song that The Strokes have ever done, and the last song in this insane musical journey. Listening to this song as I write this review brings a singular, dramatic tear running down my cheek. This song claims to be an “Ode,” to a New York-based baseball team, but the Mets are never mentioned once in the whole song. Typical. The Strokes and their metaphors will be the death of me. According to an interview with Stanley Kay for MLB, Casablancas wrote this song “on the subway platform after the 2016 NL Wild Card Game,” where the baseball team of his youth, the Mets, met a brutal loss to the Giants. Apparently, Casablancas says he didn’t write the song with the intention of it being about the game, and more so he didn’t even want to keep “Ode To The Mets” as the title. Somehow, the name stuck after Moretti—who has said both the Mets and the song evoke “something that you set your heart to and that you love unconditionally but that continues to disappoint you”—convinced him to keep it.

I associate this song with nostalgia, nostalgia, and again, nostalgia. Nowadays, young people really don’t watch baseball, at least not any young people that I know. The sport has transitioned from being arguably the most talked-about activity in the 20th century, to not really mattering to the majority of people nowadays, only really Grandpa’s reminiscing about the good ol’ days. A lot of things stop mattering to people as time goes on, and this song plays with that concept of still caring even when no one else does. The track begins with the same chords as the album’s opener “Adults Are Talking,” ending the album the same way that it began.

As mentioned previously, The Strokes have a complicated relationship with interviewers. Casablancas specifically has had his fair share of unsuccessful interactions with journalists, many where he believes that the journalist is out to get him and his band. In this song, the lyrics read: “Listen one time, it’s not the truth/It’s just the story I tell to you/….Hope that you find it, hope that it’s good/Hope that you read it, think that you should/Cuts you some slack as he sits back/Sizes you up, plans his attack” claiming that Casablancas will always know more about his craft than the interviewers and that all that the journalist deserves is whatever story Casablancas wants to tell them, and even that story itself doesn’t have to be the truth. The power he holds, it’s a lot.

In “Ode To The Mets,” a specific lyric that resonates with me is Casablancas talking about his son, how “When he gets back, he’s on the phone/Innocent eye, innocent heart/No, it’s not wrong, but it’s not right.” New technology is not wrong, but it’s not right. Ouch, thanks Mr. Casablancas, now I guess I’ll never go on my phone. All the lyrics in this song can be interpreted many different ways, and it’s all very meaningful, but the essence of it is that “Gone now are the old times/Forgotten, time to hold on the railing” and “the only thing that’s left is us.” “Us” could mean you and me, or maybe the band, or Casablancas and the love of his life, or everyone and everything that exists. The song finishes with an apology, the band wants us to “pardon the silence,” that we are hearing, because “it’s turning into deafening, painful, shameful, roar.” Yeah, here come the tears.

~A quick shoutout to Trip Pate, the guy who ignited my love for The Strokes. Without the heated discussions he and I have on everything about this band, I would not be writing this prolonged review.

 

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