It’s been roughly seven years since The Strokes started disappointing their fans. 2006’s First Impressions of Earth served as a breaking point for the New York quintet, both artistically and with respect to the group’s relationship with music listeners who expected more scuzzy, urbanite rock music. Something about the album didn’t sit right with many, and – for various reasons – The Strokes wouldn’t release another album for five years. In a sense, though, the maligned First Impressions predicted a trend in the tastes of mainstream-oriented indie rock listeners: moving away from the scum, drugs, and privilege of New York youth, towards indie rock that was literate, smarmy, baroque, and ultimately no less privileged. But The Strokes became caught between the delightful articulation of a band like Vampire Weekend and their own boozier, garage rock in a penthouse apartment beginnings. Thanks in no small part to this musical indecisiveness – and also to terrible timing – there isn’t anything too memorable about Comedown Machine; but it is almost unequivocally a stronger showing than 2011’s miserable Angles, and a not entirely worthless successor to Room on Fire and First Impressions of Earth. Also, don’t expect to see them headline with material from this new album at any Brooklyn or San Francisco music events – no plan for any tours in the near future.
Despite the giving up on the very idea of live performance, Comedown Machine bears a close resemblance to 2003’s Room on Fire in its careful reinterpretations of slick 80’s guitar-pop acts like The Cars. But where a lot of the nostalgia of Room on Fire was disguised under rough and unpredictable production, on Comedown Machine it is the production first and foremost that mimics the crisp, digital freshness of 80s guitar pop – most prominently so on the track “Slow Animals.” This puts The Strokes, quite unfortunately, into the same playing field as a band like The Killers, and indeed the production parallels between Comedown Machine and Hot Fuss are almost mindblowingly clear.
There are certain moments on Comedown Machine, like the guitar solo on “Welcome To Japan,” where it seems like the album was made for a Target commercial. It’s impossible to say that The Strokes – major label darlings from the get go – have “sold out” the edginess of their sound, which was always forced and commercial. But these songs could definitely use more of the grime and the fuzz of the group’s debut, and less of the jangly overdubs that serve no purpose but to distract from some numb songwriting. Conversely, “Slow Animals” is a welcome return to the straightforward “guitar groovin’” promoted on some of Angles’ more promising tracks, with a vibe is not irreverent of Tears For Fears.
Oddly enough, it’s the “later day” (circa 2005), more symphonic version of The Strokes first explored on First Impressions that provides for the album’s strongest moments. “80’s Comedown Machine” (this album has terrible song titles) uses a similar string sample to First Impression’s “Ask Me Anything,” with the addition of a nice, “Every Breath You Take” styled guitar part and some flutey vocals. It’s honestly a pretty great song, managing to co-opt the “classic Strokes” sound into something new and inviting. The following track, “50 50,” (really?) is weird guitar bullshit with some unfortunate hints of Weezer. Closer “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” might be one of the goofiest songs of 2013, but it’s utterly listenable – though a lot of it’s likeability may come from the novelty of The Strokes performing a vaudeville-cum-tropicalia piano ballad. It is almost like a nod to other “hardline” rock bands who, in their later careers, explore more “exotic” and symphonic influences to little artistic merit.
But it’s honestly nice to see Casablanca’s step away from the guitar rock that a lot of Strokes fans want to hold the band to. First Impressions of Earth was a disappointment to a lot of people not because it failed to deliver on the hard edged guitar pop of the first two albums, or even because the songs were in some way mediocre (I think it holds up about as well as Room on Fire), but I think it was mostly because The Strokes didn’t even try to recapture the grit and edge of their early work. Comedown Machine will not be anyone’s favorite Strokes album (I hope) but they could have made much bigger missteps than they did here. This album was destined not to please anyone, because the only way The Strokes could recreate the vibrancy and millennial necessity of their first two albums would be if they literally went back to 2001.
The Strokes have been doomed from the start of their career; mostly by a lot of inappropriate hype. Inappropriate because early comparisons to the Velvet Underground almost seemed to insist that The Strokes would be just as influential and groundbreaking as the art rock pioneers. Of course they weren’t – how could any guitar rock band be – and music listeners might have had a better chance with a band like Animal Collective or someone similarly innovative. The Strokes are making an early maneuver into the realm of older acts like David Bowie or New Order, whose new albums may be acknowledged as good but are unlikely to be viewed as musically relevant.