How things have changed since the Strokes debuted "Bad Decisions" and "At the Door" at a Bernie Sanders rally.
The Strokes didn't have to make The New Abnormal.
They could've easily hidden away in their suburban homes, working on their own more avant-garde solo side projects. But the band is New York City born and bred, and they've never abandoned the cosmopolitan anxiety that fueled their first album and launched them into mythical stardom. If anything, that anxiety is worse than ever on their latest album, which is the band's first offering since 2013.
The Strokes are used to releasing music at politically tense times; their first album was delayed by 9/11. In the wake of that disaster, the band's first album gained them reverential worship; they were crowned as saviors of rock and roll, given almost godlike status. Their songs about apathy and fractured relationships resonated with every newly minted indie kid looking to reclaim the New York City they'd read about, as well as everyone looking for an opportunity to throw on some Converse and dance the night away in those unstable times.
Today, The New Abnormal arrives in the midst of a different type of instability. There will be no dancing to these songs, at least not for a while and not outside of the confines of our bedrooms. There won't be any world tours for the foreseeable future.
Still, the album feels tailor-made for quarantine, oddly perfect for playing during another night in. In its chaotic, sometimes nonsensical, overtired, magnetic way, it feels at ease with what might be described as pandemic energy.
Perhaps that's because, as Amanda Petrusich writes in The New Yorker, "The Strokes' music makes everything feel less high-stakes." This might be why it sounds so good in an emergency," she continues. "Nothing is ever so unbearable that it can't be shrugged off. People arrive and depart, relationships begin and fracture, things are lost, parties get boring—whatever. Casablancas's songs briefly make a person feel like she's just a little bit above it all, worn out in a sexy, oblique way, rather than in the usual gutted, ugly way. 'The room is on fire as she's fixing her hair,' Casablancas sang, on 'Reptilia,' a track from Room on Fire, the follow-up to Is This It." In the quarantine era, when domestic struggles and the horrific headlines that capture the burning outside world seem to be constantly duetting, that lyric seems extra accurate; then again, when isn't it indicative of the human condition? When haven't we been fixing our hair as the world burns?
That's not to say the Strokes are against action or anti-hope. Frontman Julian Casablancas has often called for the downfall of capitalism, and the band debuted two of their new songs at a Bernie Sanders rally in New Hampshire, when his campaign was gaining critical momentum. But none of the songs are exactly powerhouse ballads about a better world; if anything, they seemed to predict the eventual decline of Sanders' campaign.
The cosmic, existential "At the Door" (which they debuted there, including its animated music video) seems to be about a breakup and climate change, albeit in equally vague ways. An almost unbearably pretty, angelic synth sets the chorus on a more psychedelic track, and the lyrics "I'll be waiting for the old times / Waiting for the tide to rise" couldn't be more accurate descriptors of how many of us are feeling nowadays.
The Strokes - At The Door (Official Video) www.youtube.com
Other album highlights include "The Adults Are Talking," a strong opener that features the Strokes' typically rebellious anti-authority ethos. "Stockholders," Casablancas spits, "Same sh*t." It's a short line that sounds both eternally relevant and extra-important in this moment in time.
The final track, "Ode to the Mets," might be the best on the album. Its final lyrics at last relinquish the nostalgia that the whole album has been entertaining, leaning into a more jaded mindset that feels a bit like release. "The old ways at the bottom of / The ocean now has swallowed / The only thing that's left is us / So pardon the silence that you're hearin' / It's turnin' into a deafening, painful, shameful roar," Casablancas mumbles at the end of the song as it billows off into a dreamy, impressionistic collection of wild synths and guitar growls.
Those don't sound like lyrics written by people who believed Bernie Sanders would win. Instead they sound like they were written by a very tired, very anxious rock band, which—whether out of a desire to make more money or a desperate need to create or most likely, some fusion of the two—continues to make beautiful, imperfect music in times of great fear and uncertainty.
The old times are never coming back, but it seems that the Strokes have returned for good. The band's music has always possessed some sort of intangible x-factor, an internal energy that distinguishes them from the rest. Something about them—be it their riffs, or melodies, or in the band's overall synergy—has a way of catching at the heartstrings, no matter what disaster we're collectively living through.
Parts of The New Abnormal are so beautiful that they're capable of pulling the listener out of the fray of the world entirely and into a more beautiful landscape that looks like the best possible version of the future. If the future looks anything like a Strokes song sounds, that would be a better world indeed.
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