Eight Perplexed Thoughts on the Disappointing New Strokes Album
A dedicated fan scratches his head.
I've always really liked The Strokes. (I even played guitar in a not-especially-tight Strokes cover band in college.) So I've been waiting impatiently these five years for a new album from them. After a long hiatus, numerous solo albums, and a critical drubbing for their last record (which I also liked), they've finally released a new album, Angles, this week… and it's damn strange.
1. Whatever Rolling Stone may say, this is not a "return to form."
Critics who are calling Angles a return to form must have forgotten what Is This It sounded like. Angles is a lot closer to their last album, the hyperdense First Impressions of Earth, than to their simpler early stuff. Even the supposed back-to-basics statement of purpose, "Under Cover of Darkness," opens with a pileup of licks that sounds like someone faceplanting into a Guitar Center. I'm not sure it's bad, but it's not exactly "Last Nite."
Listen: "Under Cover of Darkness"
2. Angles sounds like the work of five people emailing each other musical ideas.
Which it is — apparently Julian Casablancas decided to cede his obsessive control of the songwriting, instead sending his bandmates vague instructions from a separate studio. ("Operation Make Everyone Satisfied," he called it to the Times, not sounding especially satisfied.) The results are unsurprisingly fragmented. "Two Kinds of Happiness" is punchy new-wave, until it isn't; "Taken For A Fool" has the catchiest chorus on the album, but the path it takes to get there is weirdly indirect, like they felt self-conscious about delivering the goods.
Listen: "Taken For A Fool"
3. Actually, self-conscious might be the single best adjective to use here.
This might be what happens ten years after you become the most hyped band in rock. They're starting to sound like the precocious children of helicopter parents, vamping frantically to impress. Producer Gus Oberg said, "There's many versions of each song," and really, you can almost hear the box set's worth of abandoned takes and half-ideas in here. It's understandable, but you can't get away with these mid-song left turns unless you're exuding confidence, which, at the moment, The Strokes are not.
4. …despite a few moments of spontaneous glee.
There's a moment in the opener, "Machu Picchu," when the guitars play this jaunty break that sounds like a repurposed horn part (and, per Oberg's admission, probably was at some point). It's one of the only places on this record with any feeling of abandon. Listening to a lot of the other tracks, you can convince yourself that a part is cool or at least interesting, and then some little flash of the old swagger comes through ("Machu Picchu," "Taken for a Fool"), and you remember exactly how cool and interesting the Strokes are capable of being.
Listen: "Machu Picchu"
5. They even seem to recognize the problem.
In Rolling Stone, David Fricke writes about the last track, "Life Is Simple In The Moonlight," which finds Casablancas singing "Don't try to stop us/ get out of the way." I don't hear the "snapping relish" in his voice that Fricke does; I hear someone trying to convince himself. This band sounds like they'd be pretty easy to stop. Actually, they sound like they'd be relieved.
6. In retrospect, First Impressions wasn't that bad.
I really liked it, in fact. It's too damn long, it has some bad ideas, and it loses a lot of juice on side B. But it opens with maybe the best song they've ever written, "You Only Live Once," and it ends with an undervalued gem called "Red Light," whose playful ‘70s strut Angles reappropriates less tunefully on "Gratisfaction." On the other hand, Angles is twenty minutes shorter, which is progress. Apparently Casablancas told everyone he was cutting three songs from First Impressions and then… didn't.
Listen: "You Only Live Once"
7. Maybe this band works best when one person's in charge.
The first couple of Strokes albums were dictatorships by all accounts. I'm all for democracy, but this sounds more like anarchy, and honestly, Casablancas is the most talented songwriter of the five. His underrated solo album, Phrazes For The Young, had a ton of ideas — maybe too many — but it felt like there was a single intelligence at work, moving songs like "11th Dimension" intuitively from one section to the next.
Listen: "11th Dimension"
8. I still like The Strokes.
Even when they're as lost as this, their songs have a yearning, bittersweet quality that I find touching. I want there to be another Strokes album, and I want it to be better than this one. Where they used to sound loose, but tight, they now sound directionless, but anal. Fabrizio Moretti told the Times that at the beginning, "we were trying hard to seem like it came naturally… and I think now we embrace the fact that it's hard work." Well, rock music might be hard work, but it shouldn't sound like it. Maybe these guys just need to relearn how to fake it.
Listen: "Last Nite"