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Career Arc: The Strokes

From Is This It to is this it?

This week, the Strokes release their fifth album, Comedown Machine. It arrives with the sort of pomp and circumstance normally reserved for a straight-to-video Sylvester Stallone vehicle that suddenly appears in your Netflix queue because you recently watched the first 15 minutes of Avenging Angelo. When news of a new Strokes record was first reported in January, it didn’t come from an official press announcement dispersed by publicists or the band’s label, RCA; the title and demo-like cover were uncovered by a Reddit user who was “messing with” the code on the Strokes’ website. Since then there’s been exactly one pre-release interview, conducted by bassist Nikolai Fraiture, historically known as “the shy Stroke.” “I feel good about it and the atmosphere in the band,” he told BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe in mid-February, not convincingly, of Comedown Machine. “Hopefully it continues.”

Unless you’re a loyal fan, Comedown Machine probably isn’t on your radar; if you still care about the Strokes, the record’s inauspicious buildup hardly heralds great things. In a way, the pronounced media silence concerning Comedown Machine makes perfect sense: The Strokes, especially lately, are the worst possible ambassadors for new Strokes music. 2011’s Angles was a disaster in this regard: Four-fifths of the Strokes complained about lead singer Julian Casablancas’s disengagement during the torturous recording process — not just creatively but geographically, since he wasn’t in the studio and apparently communicated with his bandmates mostly via e-mail — and Casablancas shrugged his shoulders over the record itself, telling Pitchfork “there’s a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t have done.” Before most fans even got a chance to hear Angles, guitarist Nick Valensi admitted, “I feel like we have a better album in us.” Comedown Machine is not that album.

The Strokes presently occupy a dubious place in pop culture: They’re a legacy band generally considered to be important in contemporary rock history, but whose moment in time is otherwise perceived to have long since passed. Here’s a snapshot of where the Strokes are in 2013: On an episode of the laudably terrible prime-time drama Smash, the hipster bona fides of bad-boy Brooklyn-based composer Jimmy were established when he trashed the Strokes as something he liked “when I was 15.” When Smash is clowning you, you’ve truly maximized your value as cultural shorthand for “passé.”

A conspiracy theory: Comedown Machine is the last album the Strokes are due to deliver RCA under their current contract. The band could very well re-sign with RCA, sign somewhere else, or issue their future records independently. This could also be the last record the Strokes ever make — which, given the record’s low-key release and the band’s nonexistent touring schedule, doesn’t seem outrageous to suggest.

How did the Strokes arrive at Comedown Machine? Has the band’s career arc come to an end? Before we get to “Is this it?” let’s start with Is This It.

The Modern Age and Is This It

A listener who comes to the Strokes’ 2001 debut Is This It for the first time a dozen years later may wonder what the fuss was all about. It doesn’t feature dazzling displays of technical virtuosity, it didn’t introduce any game-changing innovations, and while the album eventually went platinum it didn’t change the culture in any significant way. Is This It is just a really good collection of catchy rock songs performed with the pinpoint precision of serviceable musicians who endlessly rehearsed the same 11 songs in obscurity for more than two years.1

Even at the time, there was lots of grumbling about the Strokes being all haircut and no substance. When the album’s producer, Gordon Raphael, first recorded the band in 2000 for the Modern Age EP, he didn’t find the music all that exceptional. “When I finished, I put their three songs in a folder with another 200-300 songs I had recorded that year,” he told Pitchfork in 2011. “I was on to the next thing.” A lot obviously changed between Raphael filing those early recordings in a crowded computer database and the release of Is This It. The story of the Strokes’ rise from trad-rock nobodies to the most glamorous and media-adored rock band of the early ’00s has been well-documented elsewhere; in short, the hip U.K. indie Rough Trade heard The Modern Age demos, loved them, signed the band, and sold the Strokes to a British press desperate for something young and sexy and reassuringly classicist to foist upon their readers. After a sold-out tour in England, the Strokes returned to New York as rock stars on the verge of actual stardom.

Listening to Is This It now, what’s immediately apparent is that, from the beginning, the Strokes’ sense of self was fully formed. It normally takes a band two or three records to develop a signature sound, but sample any five-second snippet from any song on Is This It and it will be instantly recognizable as the Strokes. The intricately interlocked guitars, the live drummer who approximates a drum machine, the monotone vocals that sound like they were run through a crappy late-’90s cell phone — even when the Strokes bite hard from the Velvet Underground or Television, it still comes out indelibly Strokes-ian.

The Strokes
Beyond the music, the Strokes presented a perfectly conceived and well-rounded persona. The Strokes are the only rock band of the ’00s whose members stood out as distinct entities while also seeming inextricable from the whole. Casablancas and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. were the Mick ‘n’ Keith figures — they met as teenagers in Swiss boarding school, and continued living together in a modest two-bedroom apartment after Is This It made them Internet famous. Valensi was the rock-and-roll one, with his killer cheekbones and Izzy Stradlin do. Fraiture was the suitably stone-faced bassist, and Fabrizio (Fab!) Moretti was the cute, curly-haired drummer who dated Drew Barrymore for several years, from roughly Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to Music and Lyrics. When the Strokes introduced themselves to an MTV audience with the “Last Nite” video, they fit together onstage like a classic rock band that had been together for 20 years.2

The importance of timing here can’t be overstated. The metaphorical significance of Is This It — the most lauded New York rock record since the late ’70s — coming out shortly after September 11 has already been talked about to the point of tedium. But the tangible value has been somewhat underrated: In the fall of ’01, the rest of the country really wanted to embrace NYC again, even if it meant cheering for the Yankees to beat the Diamondbacks that year in the World Series. For those of us who had never been to Gotham, the Strokes signified what we thought New Yorkers were like: They were young, fashionable, and “ethnic” looking. They wore excellently tailored jeans and cheap leather jackets. Their music simulated the primal urban electricity of speeding taxis and overcrowded dive bars. Is This It transported you to a world where it was always night and raining and everything was rendered in grimy, noirish black-and-white.

The Strokes were the 21st century’s first (and last) 20th-century rock band — the “gang of bros who team up and take over the world” trope was familiar and appealing for a lot of people, especially rock critics, who were grasping for a comforting concept that once seemed to connect us at a time when we really needed to feel connected. So the Strokes were made into an insta-institution. (First sentence of the Rolling Stone review of Is This It: “This is the stuff of which legends are made.”) What the noise around Is This It achieved was the opposite of unification. The discourse that dominates so much of modern culture when it comes to issues of class, privilege, authenticity, and media oversaturation came to define this record as well — years before there was griping about HBO “allowing” Lena Dunham to make Girls because her parents were well-connected artists from Manhattan, the Strokes were condemned because Casablancas’s dad ran a Manhattan modeling agency. If liking the Strokes was tied up at least a little in longing for a distant, less scary time when emulating Guided by Voices seemed like a tenable plan for would-be pop stars, the backlash to Is This It confirmed just how different “the Modern Age” would be.

Room on Fire

For all their junior Lou Reed affectations, the Strokes were first and foremost children of grunge. Around the time that Riot Act threatened to wipe Pearl Jam completely off the face of the planet, Casablancas was gushing to Rolling Stone about how hearing the Ten-era B side “Yellow Ledbetter” for the first time “was like the first time I drank.” The Strokes were informed by grunge’s muddled fame politics as well: “The goal was to be really cool and nonmainstream, and be really popular,” Casablancas told Rolling Stone‘s Neil Strauss in 2003. “Why does everything that has to be big and popular suck? I got a problem with that, so I’m trying to do something about it.”

Julian Casablancas
After Is This It, the Strokes were neither “nonmainstream” nor “really popular” — they were lodged somewhere between those extremes. As a major-label band aligned with indie culture, this represented the worst of both worlds. Room on Fire began with Casablancas’s version of a “teenage angst has paid off well” In Utero moment at the start of the first track, “What Ever Happened.” Applying his most insistent Cobain wheeze, Casablancas sang, “I want to be forgotten / and I don’t want to be reminded.” And the public, more or less, obliged.

There are days when I’ll argue that Room on Fire is better than Is This It. Room on Fire is distinguished by the usual sophomore-effort upgrades: It sounds roomier, richer, and more sonically varied. The flashes of reggae in the otherwise metronomic rhythms work amazingly well.3 The guitar playing is dramatically improved — the snaky “Reptilia” is a symphony of spazzy solos — and adds some oomph to the Strokes’ otherwise remedial instrumental attack. Some tracks sound like direct rewrites (usually for the better) of songs from the debut; the guitars-masquerading-as-synths on “12:51” makes “Hard to Explain” sound chintzy. Then there’s “Under Control,” the Strokes’ greatest song, a dirtbag’s “Bring It on Home to Me” that’s either directed at the band’s groupies or Casablancas’s bandmates.

The problem with Room on Fire is that it’s just a record; it could hardly compete with the “moment” that Is This It represented. The Strokes had become just another scruffy rock band in a densely populated field of Jets and Vineses. The band’s unique ability to never appear like it gave a shit circled back as a negative; now they just seemed lazy. And maybe a little annoying. The Rolling Stone cover story timed with Room on Fire‘s release suggested that Casablancas’s caginess with the media was writing checks his modest fame couldn’t cash. Seemingly every Strokes profile from this period features some variation of this exchange between Casablancas and Strauss:

OK, so what’s your stock answer to the Nigel Godrich question?
Fuck you. I’m not answering that question.
What the hell?
Next question.
Honestly, this has to be the worst …
… the worst interview ever?

What Casablancas didn’t know (or wouldn’t accept) is that the media was better positioned to say “fuck you” to the Strokes rather than the other way around — which the band would learn the hard way in the years ahead.

First Impressions of Earth and Angles

This is where the Strokes’ most valuable attribute — their sense of timing — begins to fail them. It’s not that the three-year gap between Room on Fire and 2006’s First Impressions of Earth was extraordinarily long; it’s that the bands that followed in their wake had lapped them commercially. The Strokes themselves were all too aware of this. “There were many conversations along the lines of, ‘I think our songs are better than Mr. Brightside by the Killers, but how come that’s the one everybody’s listening to?'” Valensi told Spin in 2006. “They recorded it a different way. They promoted it a different way. ‘We could be that big!'”

First Impressions was supposed to be the radio-friendly sellout record that Room on Fire should’ve been. The Strokes’ usual producer, Gordon Raphael, was put out to pasture in favor of David Kahne, who had shepherded the Bangles to glory with “Walk Like an Egyptian” and won a Grammy for producing MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett.4 The first half of First Impressions conforms to a “cleaned-up Strokes” aesthetic — the pre-YOLO anthem “You Only Live Once” and the “Mandy”-quoting “Razorblade” boast huge-sounding drums, so-bright-you-need-shades guitars, and Casablancas’s shockingly crystal-clear vocals. And then the record goes on … and on. (At 14 songs and 52 minutes, First Impressions is the relatively bloated Use Your Illusion installment in the Strokes’ discography.) In the back half, the hooks disappear, leaving behind weird (and weirdly fascinating) bad vibes and self-loathing.5

I typically bail on First Impressions after “Ask Me Anything,” but sometimes I stick around until “15 Minutes,” a drunken dirge that Casablancas fashions into a breathtakingly spiteful rewrite of “My Way.” It’s not difficult to read “15 Minutes” as Casablancas’s comment on his own fame; the Andy Warhol reference is subtle like a rolling pin to the kneecaps. At the song’s midpoint, he transitions from a majestic Frank Sinatra croon to a furious Sid Vicious howl, spitting gobs of phlegm (“’cause today they’ll talk about us, and tomorrow they won’t care”) in the faces of the few people patient enough to venture this deep into such a deeply unpleasant record.

In his review of First Impressions of Earth for Spin, Jon Dolan speculated that it might be the last Strokes record. Speaking with Pitchfork several years later, Valensi mentioned the Spin review as the band readied to record Angles. “At the time, I took offense,” he said. “But, in hindsight, they were so close to the truth. I’m not even sure we’re going to make a fourth album at this point.”

The Strokes finally did finish Angles in 2011 after several years of stops and starts and various side projects by all the members except Valensi.6 Angles garnered better reviews than First Impressions from the major music glossies, though once the Strokes detailed the record’s dysfunctional berth and their own estrangement from the finished product, words like “disjointed” and “perfunctory” started showing up in the online postmortems. At the end of the year, Angles was virtually absent on best-of lists.

I’m the only person on the planet who feels this way, but screw it: Angles is my favorite Strokes LP. How the album was made has no bearing on my enjoyment. It’s the one I listen to the most, because it functions as a kind-of greatest-hits record, but with new songs. Angles retains the “straight-up rock side one/experimental curveball side two” structure of First Impressions, only with better focus and greater brevity. “Two Kinds of Happiness” and “Taken for a Fool” are excellent pop songs that cash in on the massive debt owed the Strokes by bands like Phoenix. The goofiest tracks — the Thin Lizzy–Billy Joel hybrid “Gratisfaction,” the manic “You’re So Right” — have a self-effacing lightness that’s hard to dislike. Angles ends with the Strokes’ prettiest-ever song, “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight,” which includes a clunky Cornel West shout-out I can easily ignore because Casablancas’s vocal reduces the lyrics to an indiscernible litany of self-pitying slurring. What comes through clearest is the part at the end, when he shouts, “Don’t try to stop us, don’t try to stop us, don’t try to stop us, get out of the way.” It’s a callback to the old bravado, only Casablancas sounds too beaten-down to put up a fight.

The Strokes – Life Is Simple in the Moonlight from Luis F. Alonso on Vimeo.

So, Comedown Machine. I kind of love it, though I should qualify this opinion by pointing out that I love Comedown Machine like I love those mid-’70s Stones albums in which you sense a great band fumbling through a haze of exhaustion, mid-career confusion, and their own historical inertia. The subtext of Comedown Machine is more interesting than the text. It is the Strokes’ Black and Blue. It is accurately described as a Comedown Machine.

I’m inclined to reflexively defend whatever the Strokes do at this point, because the public has been waiting a decade for them to implode and the Strokes keep on (barely) holding it together. I cheer for the Strokes like I cheer for Paul Schrader to write another Taxi Driver. Perhaps Casablancas’s falsetto vocal on the bizarre robo-klezmer track “One Way Trigger” doesn’t quite work, but it’s also the most vulnerable he’s allowed himself to sound on a Strokes record. “Tap Out” and “Welcome to Japan” might be lightweight new wave trifles, but they’re exceedingly well-crafted trifles. (You think Kings of Leon can write pop songs like this? Do you really want to find out?) If “All the Time” is a Strokes song on autopilot, at least the Strokes stand alone in the arid mainstream rock landscape as a band with an iconic musical identity. I’ll even stump for Comedown Machine‘s least Strokes-y track, the closing number, “Call It Fate, Call It Karma,” a jazzy, vaguely Hawaiian-sounding tone poem in which Casablancas (I think) is attempting to channel Billie Holiday. It’s a very decently pretty good song.

The obvious difference between Is This It and Comedown Machine is that Comedown Machine was deliberately released with no narrative. It is not a “statement” record; the only statement is no statement. It’s a bunch of songs that may or may not fit together. In his interview with Radio 1, Fraiture said that (unlike with Angles) the entire band convened in the studio this time, and “hashed it out all together like the good old days.” But Comedown Machine doesn’t really sound like a “we’re getting the band back together” record; a few songs in the record’s second half (like the beauteous synth ballad “Partners in Crime”) could almost pass for solo Casablancas tracks.7 The story with every Strokes album going back to Room on Fire has been “We’re back!”; with Comedown Machine, it’s “We’re still here … maybe.”

I’m an optimist, which is why I prefer to think of Comedown Machine as the Strokes’ Guided by Voices record — the one where they just throw a bunch of stuff against the wall, and only the hardcores wind up hanging around to see what sticks. That’s the kind of band the Strokes always dreamed of being. I like to imagine the Strokes leaving RCA and getting sloppier and more spontaneous, and putting out a haphazardly pleasurable record like Comedown Machine every year or two.

Sounds nice — and not entirely plausible. The Strokes don’t wear anonymity all that well; they’ll always be emblematic of something larger about their era. Back in the early ’00s, the Strokes inspired a short burst of intense enthusiasm followed by aloof skepticism and, finally, numbed indifference. Our collective responses to pretty much everything in the Internet age — whether it’s a TV show or a political candidate or the ginned-up crisis du jour — have followed a similar trajectory. A question about whether the Strokes could ever be good enough was embedded into the title of their first record; they weren’t, because hardly anything ever is.

Filed Under: Music, career arc

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden