Arts and Entertainment

The Strokes Speaking To Our New Abnormal

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Issue 15, Volume 110

By Jenny Liu 

“The New Abnormal” is the aptly-named, prescient album we didn’t know we needed from The Strokes, and it could not have come at a more appropriate time given our present circumstances in quarantine as a result of the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s just as well: the album serves as a sort of mood palette for how life has been since the beginning of the year. “No one saves the day / Don’t you want the truth? / Ignore reality / See I love that feelin’ too,” sings lead vocalist Julian Casablancas on “Eternal Summer.” It’s almost as if he’s derisively laughing at both himself and the world—an accurate representation of the current mentality.

The first time The Strokes released an album during a crisis was none other than their 2001 debut, “Is This It,” prior to the 9/11 attacks. Though they didn’t intend to be, the quintet became the poster child for the resurgence of post-punk rock and garage rock revival. They followed in the footsteps of a New York City rock lineage running from the avant-garde Velvet Underground to The Stooges. Their sixth studio album “The New Abnormal” comes after a seven-year hiatus due to interpersonal conflicts between the members following “Comedown Machine” (2013), their most commercially unsuccessful album to date; go figure. I think it’s safe to say this new album marks a grand return.

One of the more obvious characteristics of the album is its focus on New York City. From song titles such as “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” and “Ode to the Mets” (my personal favorite despite all of Casablancas’ crooning), the LP rides the road of nostalgia to the band’s beginnings. The album art is a bit of a tease and pays homage to New York with a painting called “Bird on Money” by New York painter and cultural icon Jean-Michel Basquiat. On the left-hand corner, one can see the word “Greenwood,” an allusion to Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn, where Basquiat was buried.

The Strokes stick to their roots and circle around motifs of purposeful disengagement and apathy in this album. It oozes nostalgia dashed with just a bit of restlessness, making it accessible to us all. “I kinda miss the nine to five, yeah / I scramble, fight just like a child / I’m staying hungry, I’m staying hungry,” Casablancas asserts resignedly in “Why Are Sundays So Depressing?”

It’s classic Strokes and their brand of anxious, hooky indie rock, but fine-tuned and updated for the modern age. They retain the melodrama and sentiment, but they’ve infused a detached feeling of calm in their music. Perhaps they follow the cliche most bands go through: as they mature, so does their music.

It works, though. They do a lot to maintain the balance of the angst-driven lyrics and languid beat of songs such as “Selfless.” Producer Rick Rubin—associated with acts such as Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers—took the adage “less is more” to heart. He cuts back on the production and strips the songs of extraneous elements. While the vocals and instruments are clearly heard, the style backfires on some occasions; the beginning of “Bad Decisions” sounds dangerously close to Dinosaur Jr’s “Feel the Pain” in terms of how bone-dry it is. In “At the Door,” Casablancas starts off with a depressive “I can’t escape it / Never gonna make it / Out of this in time / I guess that’s just fine” and a single, sparse synthesizer. The song feels flatter than it needs to be. Maybe sometimes less is just… less.

For the most part though, the instruments do their part in making the songs sound full. Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. on lead and rhythm guitars, respectively, are in constant dialogue with Casablancas’s lead vocals. The drums are Fabrizio Moretti’s handiwork: slow and sparse, setting but not controlling the pace.

Comeback albums are a hit or miss. But it seems “The New Abnormal” is a hit and the perfect way to signify The Strokes’ return to making music together. It’s cohesive and sounds like them; they make caring sound like not caring, and vice versa. All in all, the album does an excellent job of speaking for the world’s angsty, desensitized feelings, as well as my own.