Genre: Indie Rock, New Wave
Favorite Songs: “At the Door,” “Bad Decisions”
If you were to picture, in your mind’s perfect eye, a revolution, surely that ideal visage would not be one of a band 20 years past its prime with a lead singer outfitted in a grotesquely art-pop suit, playing a concert in support of a 78-year-old Vermont senator in the state of New Hampshire. For the uninitiated, this probably sounds like an event somewhere between cringe and snooze, but this is America, a country so openly hostile to the idea of change that a stage of white male millionaires making mostly milquetoast critiques of capitalism is the closest thing to guillotines you could hope for. But weirdly, this scene truly felt like the start of something brand new in a time where nothing feels new.
I wrote this lede in February, a time when elections still existed and political rallies were a thing that were held and could be attended in person. The thought was to present The Strokes as unlikely class traitors soundtracking a genuinely unprecedented political movement in a time that desperately, absolutely required one.
That idea turned out to be stupid as shit.
Just two months later, THE NEW ABNORMAL is born into a completely different world. One in which all semblance of normalcy has been thrown out the window, one in which Senator Sanders is no longer interviewing for that job promotion, and one in which New York City is experiencing a new 9/11 every single day. And in the midst of this, I had somehow convinced myself to be excited for a new Strokes album. And for the third time in their career, The Strokes have released their worst album.
Like many latter-day letdowns, THE NEW ABNORMAL’s flaw is twofold: most every song sounds like an amalgam of their back catalogue and thus sounds entirely phoned-in and uninspired. The only hint that the band was ever in the same room to record is the candid banter tacked onto the end of a couple songs. It’s apparent from the jump that this is nothing more than a cash grab with “The Adults Are Talking,” a lifeless track that sounds like a step-by-step detailed in How To Make A Shitty Strokes Song Starterpack on Garageband. Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr.’s guitars have never sounded so out of step; there is simply no chemistry. The hi-hats sound like goddamn shit—somewhere in the FEELINGS-neighborhood of the awful scrape-y tool dentists use. Lyrically it’s confused; Casablancas flounders between compartmentalizing a breakup and critiquing capital, a combination I suppose could work but in this case just reads really sloppy as he backs into the end of the song swearing off stakeholders and sexual partners. Not sure what Casablancas was setting out to do with this song; not sure he was either.
There are times where you can almost trick yourself into thinking you’re listening to something approximating a good Strokes song but that feeling nearly never lasts more than a minute before you snap out of it, only to find yourself in a blurry deja vu. “Brooklyn Bridge Chorus” best exemplifies this quasi-concussion with one foot in the past as the band stumbles in the dark trying to sound like they did 20 years ago and another foot even further in the past that expresses itself in a poorly aped post-peak New Order pastiche. “Eternal Summer” should’ve never gotten past the demo phase. Schizophrenic, sterile, and somehow six minutes, the track is truly the most awful piece the band’s put to tape. The lion’s share of the blame goes to Casablancas, whose vocals seldom spoil the show (in fact, this song is the first in the band’s history in which he turned in the worst work), but on this occasion he makes the baffling choice to alternate between karaoke stylings of Tame Impala and Chumbawamba. Less egregious shortcomings like “Why Are Sundays So Depressing?” and “Ode to the Mets” are nothing more than nostalgia bait, hardly able to conjure even a 10-second clip of something salvageable. One of the few sources of joy this record has to offer are the unintentionally funny moments, like when Julian starts a chorus with “Uncle’s house” or when he sounds like he’s forgotten the words as he often does during live performances.
A NEW ABNORMAL manages to be both overwrought and underthought. Past Strokes albums’ pitfalls have been rather innocuous—FIRST IMPRESSIONS is too long and too safe, ANGLES surrounds its singles with filler, COMEDOWN MACHINE is consistent but lacks hits—but THE NEW ABNORMAL’s flaws are glaring. The band has deservedly caught heat in the past for its experimentation allergy and decided to do away with that critique once and for all. I applaud the adventurous streak, but Good Lord, the leaps on this record were certainly not preceded by looks—ambitious with ample misfires, a portrait of a band that goes seven years between records for a reason.
Though for all these fuckups, The Strokes’ sixth record did deliver one gem: “Bad Decisions.” It’s not only the best track on the album, but genuinely stands alongside golden-era Strokes smash hits. Much like their early classics, the song interpolates an all-timer (“Dancing With Myself”) and continues to build on top of itself towards an incredible climax. Casablancas’ lyrics could be read as critical of his father or fanbase—the latter more likely. Andrew Donoho’s music video for the song can be easily read with that same resenting tone. The faux infomercial puts young versions of the band members up for sale, readily available at the press of a button, but they’re overexerted and begin to malfunction. Ironically, what was meant to critique their fanbase is unwittingly the greatest condemnation of THE NEW ABNORMAL. There are tons of moments on this record that, even under the most charitable reading, are absolute fan service. Perhaps there are enough curveballs to obfuscate that but the bulk of the album is a band out of ideas meandering to the recesses of their mind to try to bottle that past magic once more. With THE NEW ABNORMAL we can confidently conclude the genie isn’t granting anymore wishes.