Is This It (2001), the ultra-crisp debut record from The Strokes, has at this point been immortalised as an indisputable classic responsible for refocusing rock’s trajectory and laying the framework for the indie rock explosion of the 2000s. But like their contemporaries in that New York City scene, specifically Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Strokes have not since been able to truly match the weight of their early material.
Fast forward to 2020, almost two decades after that seminal classic was released, The Strokes were asked to perform at a rally for US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Before the band took the stage, through the speakers could be heard an unknown song but whose voice could easily be identifiable as Julian Casablancas. The next day a video was released for “At The Door” and an announcement made for The New Abnormal, their first studio album in seven years.
Important to note, this new Strokes album would be overseen by iconic producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Johnny Cash, and many more). Rubin successful injects a level of clarity to the recording while heightening the band’s urgency and recreating their live energy. Take for example guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.’s infectious guitar licks on opening track “The Adults Are Talking”. Casablancas sneaks in with an effortless coo. His singing throughout the record is fantastic, convincing through a diversity of vocal deliveries. The snappy chorus simply sounds like a band removed from any expectations, just having a tonne of fun.
On “Selfless”, Casablancas earnestly takes on an apologetic tone, admitting past faults and asking for the meaning of a previously severed relationship. Bright, shimmering guitars meet a cymbal-heavy backdrop from drummer Fabrizio Moretti. Futuristic synths give “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus” its more dance-oriented groove. “I want new friends, but they don’t want me,” Casablancas laments. This track is woefully nostalgic, romanticising a past that is secretly gone from the band’s possession. A screeching guitar solo is added for good measure.
Billy Idol is given songwriting credits on the “Dancing with Myself” interpolating single “Bad Decisions”. While that innocent feeling is what categorises the verses, the spiky chorus shifts into something darker. With sticky, confident hooks, their impenetrable cool comes off in full strides.
On “Eternal Summer”, Casablancas demonstrates his vocal flexibility; his potent falsetto over mip-tempo funk grooves in the verse; juxtaposed to his grizzled snarl over crunchy, distorted guitars in the chorus. “Summer is coming here to stay,” Casablancas hints at with false optimism. “Lo and behold the salt of the city, pillars like time are fading away,” he resigns. It’s a melancholic anthem of impermanence, realising the things we hold dear eventually fall away. The final seconds of the song contain a lo-fi nod to Tame Impala. The previously mentioned “At The Door” is a doleful ballad about a relationship at its inevitable end. Drums are visually absent from the mix, instead embracing a minimalist, synth-led structure.
“I love you in the morning, so you know it’s no lie” is an example of Casablancas’ clever wit heard on the skeletal “Why Are Sundays So Depressing”. The singer, emotionally in flux, is cementing deep feelings for another. The singer shows maturity and self-awareness with the regretful “Not The Same Anymore”. Over a chord progression reminiscent of John Lennon’s “I’m Losing You” (1980), Casablancas examines toxic patterns he has inhabited in the past with honesty: “I was afraid I fucked up… I couldn’t change, it’s too late.” Moretti’s drums and Nikolai Fraiture’s bass take the most prominent roles here, while leaving room for sparse, melancholic guitar slides from Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi. It’s one of the most emotionally resonant things the band has ever laid to tape.
The album concludes with the charming “Ode To The Mets”. Over a sultry, slow-burning instrumental arrangement, the band reminisce on memories of growing up in New York City with nothing but affection.
The New Abnormal is The Strokes at their most focused and most compelling in a very long time. This does not sound like a band looking to purport themselves as the important saviours of rock they were initially crowned as. Instead, this sounds like the wide-eyed, scrappy and disheveled kids from New York with no baggage on their shoulders. With slick production, top-notch songwriting and lively performances, The New Abnormal is likely to satisfy fans and reward with repeated listens.