The Strokes, “The New Abnormal”

The Strokes
The New Abnormal
CULT/RCA
7/10

If there’s a more striking cautionary tale about unambiguous, out-of-the-gate success than The Strokes, I’m not aware of it. 2001’s Is This It is a once-in-a-generation breakout album, and while 2003’s Room on Fire was sneered at upon release for replicating its predecessor beat-for-beat, it was very nearly as good. The band’s subsequent output has struggled in the shadow of that success, unfolding in equal fits of brilliance and frustration. Critical consensus painted the next three albums as failures, but the truth is more complicated. The Strokes neither doubled down on their roots nor pivoted decisively away from them; collectively, these records amount to a wash, a series of interesting failures and boring successes and half steps forward and backwards that left the band in a weird sort of limbo.

The New Abnormal, The Strokes’ sixth album, doesn’t disrupt that complicated pattern. While it isn’t weighed down by as many clear duds as, say, First Impressions of Earth, it is in some respects equally tortured. It seems to have internalized the lessons of Julian Casablancas’s recent detours with The Voidz; songs can be longer, and weirder, and more formless. They can breathe and ramble and surprise you. 

This isn’t a bad lesson to learn, and The Strokes should be given latitude to try new things. But it fundamentally misreads the band’s strengths. For all of their Television influence, The Strokes never really excelled with “Marquee Moon” style epics; they are at their best at their punchiest and hookiest. The New Abnormal is mostly devoid of that urgency, shaggy and shrugging and unconcerned. More than half of the songs exceed five minutes. The band appears both unable to replicate past successes (nothing here has the vigor of, say, “Last Nite”) and unsure how to forge a path forward (it isn’t clear what “At the Door” is trying to accomplish, exactly). So basically, exactly where they were a month ago, and fifteen years ago, too.

For all those limitations and miscalculations, though, The New Abnormal gets under your skin. This is the band’s first collaboration with legendary producer Rick Rubin, and his ear for a good, straightforward pop song hasn’t deteriorated. “Bad Decisions” is as immediate and irresistible as anything the band has written since First Impressions. “Selfless” is a sneaky, insistent earworm that puts Julian’s falsetto to good use; “The Adults Are Talking” marks the band’s sixth straight unimpeachable album opener.

For nearly twenty years now, The Strokes have been grappling with a tough reality: their appeal comes with their warm-blanket familiarity, but at the same time, nobody wants to hear Julian Casablancas strain to recreate “Barely Legal” at age forty-one. This leaves them in an untenable position, one they haven’t always balanced properly. But on The New Abnormal, they are at least trying to balance it. And maybe that’s enough.

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