The Strokes are what every band wants to be.
Their 2001 album “Is This It” is the archetypal formula for a band that became synonymous with New York rock: cunningly simple guitar work underlined by straightforward drum patterns, all supporting Julian Casablancas’ iconic drawl as it delivers line after line of lyricism that can be taken as serious or whimsical as you like. The Strokes created and still create exceedingly natural music, as if these pieces had always been waiting in humanity’s collective consciousness, and the band was simply the first to discover them. The beauty of the Strokes is you can listen to a song like “Someday” and “Reptilia” for the first time and immediately feel as though this music belongs to you.
For the next decade, the five-piece enjoyed the success of existing musically in a space that no other band to date has been able to successfully enter — a space with so specific a sound and feel that Casablancas himself had to start an entirely new band to escape it. While their fifth album, 2013’s “Comedown Machine,” has not fared as well in the eyes of critics and fans, nearly a decade of silence from the band and a string of singles leading up to a new album still managed to pull listeners on to the edge of their seats.
Fortunately, “The New Abnormal” is no less true to the ineffable magic of the Strokes than anything released in the aughts.
The lead single, “At The Door,” was and is unlike anything I’ve heard. It’s that same magical nostalgic feeling the Strokes delivered on their earlier albums with an entirely different sound. There are barely any guitars on this song — there aren’t even any drums. Over what is largely a wave of synth chords, Casablancas coaxes the listener into an iteration of the Strokes that is very familiar and simultaneously not at all so, and the end result is transcendent.
In a way, “At The Door” gave listeners both spot-on and wildly inaccurate expectations for the album the Strokes delivered. On one hand, the mood Casablancas forms with his forlorn, longing vocals is thematic of the album’s frequently desperation-tinged songwriting. On the other hand, the synthwave retropop, co-engineered by none other than Rick Rubin, of all people, is often nothing more than a backdrop to the Strokes sound that audiences are already familiar with for the majority of the runtime on “The New Abnormal.”
That said, the majority of the album is not nearly as outside their wheelhouse. There is nothing if not an abundance of the Strokes’ characteristic guitar lines on “The New Abnormal,” which is perhaps why the second single, “Bad Decisions,” is a note-for-note pastiche of an 80s rock song. The band continues to pull from that sound on “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” and “Eternal Summer,” but more deftly and to better artistic effect on these two than on the single. All the same, this tendency towards the derivative is easily the weakest factor in the album’s sound.
The framework of the album is skillful and intentional, with the excellent “The Adults Are Talking” welcoming you to the record and giving you a reintroduction to the classic Strokes sound, while “Ode To The Mets” closes the album with a perfectly melancholy combination of the band’s new and old sounds. Over the twinkling guitar picking and sentimental synthline, Casablancas progresses from a casual croon to a defiant shout. He sounds like an aging rockstar past his prime, standing on a dark stage before a grand audience as he reflects on a simpler time that has long passed. Come to think of it, that is exactly what he is.